Authors tend to think of a character trait as a set element in a personality rather than a force that helps to propel a novel. Yet a story usually demands that a character trait remains ongoing, leading toward an end later in the novel. A young woman, for example, is so wildly rebellious that she breaks something important to her in the climax. Her character arc demands development toward that point.

While a very good author might be able to convey that progress through interior thoughts, the lesser lights among us might want to employ their other characters to assist in that aim. In particular, a pattern that is seen frequently in novels is using two supporting characters: one a comrade and one an opponent. I propose this in the crudest terms, since many shades of both types have been chosen. In addition, a protagonist may have several of both, as long as they are maintained on a continual basis throughout the story.

Why so few? The simple answer is dispersion. You can build a stronger bond with one lover or one friend. You can focus hatred better on one opponent. That principle can be expanded outward to a limited extent. The rebel above—call her Lindsey—might have two friends who are very much unalike, but both play signal roles in daring Lindsey to wilder efforts. Lindsey might not only hate her mother but her father too. 

Past that, though, what do you get? If Lindsey has three or four friends in her gang, now you have to apportion enough space for each of them to matter to the reader. The same holds for the opposition. Sure, the principal sucks too, not to mention the creepy English teacher, but how well does Lindsey know either of them compared to the ’rents? 

Character interactions can build in an ongoing way throughout a novel. This continual accretion allows you to show how a character trait plays out in how many different directions, including those unexpected, as you want. For Lindsey, rebellion may score telling points about the rotten hypocrisy of those in education, while at the same time her hectoring scares away any potential romantic partner. In order to accomplish the latter aim, you insert a character or two who are attracted to her vibrancy. How does that create friction with Lindsey and her friend(s)? How does she react to her parents’ support of the swain, even if she admits in her private moments that they are well meaning?

In every instance, tension is created by interactions with known quantities. The more the reader gets to know them, the more you can offer different types of scenarios to add complexity to the trait. Now Lindsey is ripe for a turning point.

Exercise: If you have written background stories for a character, examine them with an eye toward making them active. Does Lindsey, for instance, have to be a little girl when such-and-such happened? You may find that a chauvinist uncle is far more useful when her mother starts scolding him for being a pig.

“I have sporadic OCD cleaning moments around the house. But then I get lazy and I'm cured. It's a very inconsistent personality trait.” —Chris Hemsworth

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Oblique Angle

Authors who want to write a mystery or a thriller cannot start from a blank sheet and let the story wend where it will. Nor can they decide in midstream that actually what they want to write (or what they hear will sell) is a thriller. That’s because these genres rely on deceiving the reader at key steps along the way. You will do a poor job of that if you don’t know the trapdoors yourself before you come upon them.

The idea of devising a grand scheme can seem well nigh impossible until you grasp a vital starting point. A main character only knows the information you provide. The protagonist can be placed within a larger scheme that is hidden from them at the beginning. Forget about characterization at this stage. Anyone can be duped if they are swept off their feet by unexpected events. 

One straightforward scheme involves romantic partners. That makes a protagonist—let’s call her Paula—inclined to believe in the one she loves. While the gender doesn’t matter, we’ll give Paula a husband, Rick, since that is the typical arrangement. Also give Rick a lover, Geraldine, with whom he’s having an affair. 

The next step is: leave Paula out of your thinking entirely. What is going on in that affair? You want a unique arrangement, because you’re trying to use fresh elements that readers haven’t seen. At the same time, you can use age-old developments. One partner in an affair commonly comes to want more than just sex out of the relationship. Disrupting the marriage, with whatever combination of resistance by one lover you devise, then becomes an imperative very early in the book. 

Paula is made aware that something is untoward, whether through an attempted murder on her or a murder of one of the affair’s lovers or someone who learns of the lovers. This last point is important, because the only way you can create a series of trapdoors is through new information that is revealed to Paula. An affair, to extend this example, does not occur in a vacuum. Other people have seen the lovers. A colleague at Rick’s job could divulge info to Paula. Geraldine’s husband could make contact with Paula. The detectives investigating the murder could reveal to Paula past financial transactions involving Rick through their uncovering of evidence. That’s not to mention his unsavory childhood years, quite different from the story that Paula has believed for so many years.

When you populate the landscape around Paula with people that know only their angle of the truth, you can then assign what she learns to each of those characters. The ones who have more skin in the game will appear more often. Now deception doesn’t seem so impossible, does it?

Exercise: An important factor is the agenda of the characters who impart information. Slanting the truth is to the advantage of a person who needs to hide from Paula. You can break down that “truth” into a series of revelations that then are parceled out in a series of scenes. The true agenda is revealed when you decide to finish off that character.

“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”  ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Which Do You Choose?

When, for whatever reason, you have to make large cuts in a manuscript, the question is: what goes and what stays? I will immediately dismiss the idea that you can lop off a sentence here and there to get to your target. You need entire scenes. How do you tell which scenes are more important than others?

A useful overall guideline is: how much does a scene affect the main character? If you want to be a good editor of your work, you should learn to choose a prism that governs your attack. For me, the first and foremost prism is viewed through the protagonist. In this case, what is the role the hero plays in each scene?

You may be surprised when you make judgments based on that standard. I’ll use a historical novel as a model, since so many are sprawling. If your subject is the Tennessee campaign in the fall of 1864, you are probably covering a variety of hardships suffered by the Confederate army. How many of those hardships affect the lead character in any substantial way? How many of the arguments about poor grub does the hero take part in? What you’ll find, when you look carefully, is that your lead is basically a bystander in a number of scenes. So they may be the first to go. 

The second fertile area is trickier, but not by much. Using the same prism, ask: how important is the scene to the protagonist’s ultimate goals? Using the same example, if your hero is a soldier who unexpectedly is gobsmacked by a bitter hill-country belle, to the point that he will go back to look for her after the Battle of Nashville, that should govern your thinking about scenes outside that plot line. Are all those scenes of General John Bell Hood madly cursing his fate really needed? Does the 100-page sequence covering the Battle of Franklin really have to include all of the nuances? 

Finally, consider what the payoff is for each scene. That is, it should be a building block leading to some larger aim. If you have three scenes of soldiers hunting squirrels because they are starving, you should realize you get shock value out of a topic only once. So pick the best of the three and cut the other two. If you have five scenes of generals discussing battle tactics, pick two, or three, that actually have an effect on the protagonist in the field. You should be aware that planning meetings are the most boring in any novel. Focus on the grunt, and you’ll probably be okay.

Exercise: On the converse side, if you created a minor romance that doesn’t end up going anywhere, that should be first in line. What you want most of all are cuts of an entire character. Look at your subplots. Could one be excised from this book and become a plot line in your next one?

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."  —Alfred Hitchcock

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Narrative Tricks

An author writing a plot-driven book will rightfully claim that he does not have time for lengthy character explorations. They slow down the book’s pacing. Yet this approach also runs the risk of creating characters so ill-defined, they’re cartoon cutouts. The question for this author is: how do I create memorable characters in quick strokes? Here are a few tips:

First of all, your character has a memory. Let’s use a running example of an Ebola-like outbreak in a war-torn country in Africa. Let’s further posit that the protagonist is an American doctor trying to save patients. She arrives at a stricken village, and you provide a paragraph of description that fills in the harrowing details. All of this writing is exterior: that is, it could be described by anyone. So how do you make it an individual experience?

One way is to compare it to other outbreaks she has experienced. A doctor involved in infectious diseases usually is familiar with numerous types of these diseases. If she has served in other humanitarian crises, she would assess this one in terms of the previous ones. In other words, you’re using her memory to bind all of the sensory material in that descriptive paragraph to her.

Another trick is to put yourself in the character’s shoes at the moment she is experiencing action. Let’s say our doctor (we’ll switch to a man) steps out of his Jeep and approaches the door to what appears to be the village clinic. Again, you have a paragraph of description of approaching the closed door. Again, the writing is all exterior. How do you make it personal?

Ask the questions your character would ask. Start with: What does he fear is waiting on the other side of the closed door? That’s why you wrote all that descriptive stuff, isn’t it? You want to induce trepidation in the reader. So stick it inside the mind of the protagonist. Monkey see (the character), monkey do (the reader).

A third trick is to use description itself, only calibrated to the character. Let’s say the protagonist thinks she recognizes another doctor from back home, only he’s lying on one of the fetid clinic beds. You describe her first impressions, from a distance. Then, as she gets closer, she provides more pinpoint descriptions that she recognizes. All descriptions, but your character controls the focus.

Exercise: Here’s one more trick. If you have any emotional material at all, judge how impersonal it is. For example, when the woman doctor recognizes her friend:  “She experienced a rush of anxiety.” Do you mean: “She was terribly worried about him”? Try to use warmth in the emotional descriptions rather than accurately cataloging the state. You’re not using more words; you’re choosing the right words.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Leading Statements

Anyone familiar with TV or films knows the device that directors use to foreshadow an event. A single short shot of someone doing something in a locale out of sequence is sufficient to convey that the story will go in that direction. The idea has been copied by novelists, with varying degrees of success. 

Its least effective use is as a chapter-ending line. “They had no idea they were heading for catastrophe” is a typical example. It is a cheap trick that is reviled by most readers. The irritation is doubled when the line is placed at the end of a chapter in which nothing much happened. You can almost see the writer thinking, “Gosh, the chapter is so flat. Let’s throw in a zinger.” The correct solution, of course, is to rewrite the chapter so it does advance the drama.

The author is not wrong in one regard, though. A single sentence can set a reader’s mind whirring. If a detective tells their boss, “I sure wish the killer hadn’t wiped the hard drive,” the reader is immediately alerted. Hold it a second, computer techs can recover wiped hard drives. So then the direction has been signaled without its feeling cheap. In fact, a single sentence can be appended to the end of that chapter: “We’ll send this to the IT guys to find out what’s on that hard drive.” A single-sentence clue, a knock-on promise. 

This sort of linkage can be more effective when you place a single statement in two different plot lines. This might be deemed the call and response method. If in one chapter a Middle Eastern villain states that the method of attack will be a car bomb, you might then in a later chapter have a police chief remind their squad that enemy forces liked to use car bombs in Iraq. Now suspense has been created by mere juxtaposition.

The device works most effectively when the talk is shortly backed by action. Dramatic emphasis depends largely on length of coverage of a topic. So a single sentence runs the danger of being trampled in the reader’s memory by subsequent waves of better-covered events. You can let the sentence hang for a while, as a beckoning promise, but within a few chapters more meat should be provided. Actions speak louder than words. The police chief should be proven right, to however limited degree, by the Middle Eastern villain visiting, say, a pool equipment store to buy an ingredient for the promised bomb. A single-sentence clue, a payoff for the attention.

Exercise: With any plot-driven book, you can draw up a list of the points that you want to foreshadow. Then place the single lines in strategic locations: a few chapters beforehand, or a string of them at 30-page intervals. Choose scenes with the individuals involved and drop in the line as a natural segue from what they are already discussing. Unobtrusive hints can do wonders.

“The pleasure lies not in the cookies, but in the pattern the crumbs make when the cookies crumble.”  —Michael Korda

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Matters

In this fervid season of American politics, the temptation for a novelist is to capture that lightning in a bottle. Yet when I try to remember any political novel that matters, only a stray few, such as All the King’s Men, come to mind. Given all the Covid-laden shouting everywhere, how can that possibly be? 

The first, gigantic obstacle facing a writer is freshness. In our 24-hour news cycle, any American who would read a book already knows the issues. Nor do new wrinkles in these long-standing causes tend to develop. How long ago was Roe v. Wade? When characters spout off the arguments of the religious right, say, a novel reader’s interest immediately dims. Oh, right, that stuff. Aren’t I reading a novel to get away from that stuff? 

The second is politics’ inherent immorality. If a novel has to make sense of our world, how can that be reconciled with a group of individuals whose worth is measured by the opinions of others? Good luck creating a character whose moral fiber waxes and wanes with the circumstances. How much do you think the reader is going to care about that character? 

The third is the problem that fiction in general has in aping real life. The right to an abortion, to use that example, really matters to women. The course of their life may depend on it. Yet when that issue is raised in a novel, the plot inevitably depends on the personal nature of the decision. That’s because fiction is terrific at laying bare what is in our hearts. What a pregnant character tells her mother will impact me more deeply than what she argues, for all women, on a soapbox. 

In that observation lies the crux of the matter. Why does Robert Penn Warren’s novel succeed? One reason is the venality of Huey Long, to be sure. Far more energy is directed, however, in uncovering what makes him venal. That suggests that politics succeeds in novels only when it is made personal. You do have commercial outliers, such as The Manchurian Candidate, which succeed because the premise is so outrageous. The idea that a Soviet spy could become president actually is so wicked that a reader might care. For the great majority of novelists, though, the plotting tends to be more ordinary. My advice? Don’t go there. Turn on the TV and shout to your heart’s content.

Exercise: The core of a good political novel, as with any novel, is formed of a small cast of characters whose actions impinge on each other personally. If the president and his wife have a long-running battle that is featured every fifth scene, the reader will be moved because of the personal acrimony. When laying out a plot, start there: who really matters to whom?

“If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal.”  —Emma Goldman

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.