Crossed Lines

In a world where megalithic corporations funnel us all toward becoming oafs who eat burgers, it is not surprising that we clamor for entertainment that presents a new take on things. Yet the insidious pull of sameness affects novels as well, with formulaic plots helmed by cynical mavericks who really, deep down, are good people. How does an author devise characters who could intrigue us?

You might want to start by thinking of the main characters you want to include and write them down in a list. Then, off the top of your head, name one stereotypical quality that would describe them. Once you have jotted down a list of those attributes, then play a kid’s game with yourself. Draw a line to connect the names not with the quality you assigned, but on a diagonal, at random, with another quality. So the librarian, for instance, does not win the “mousy and quiet” label but the “muscles hard as steel.” That would be unusual: a librarian who lifts weights.

The point of the exercise is not to create weirdos that no reader would believe in. Rather, it’s a way of shaking you out of your habitual ways of thinking about people. We all have our slants; they’re a variant of reaching for the burger, only intellectually. But what would happen if, in that library scene you were scheming about, the librarian was glancing down at a muscle mag behind the counter while helping a helpless patron? What if they started tripping out on a fantasy about a particularly statuesque body builder while answering questions about the gardening section? That scene is sparky, not the same old grind.

At the same time you can free-associate between the labels and different characters. The ardent gun lover who makes sure they always dress in vogue might be a bridge too far for you, but not for the student who marches for our lives. In the midst of mismatching, new traits may spring to mind that are fresh but align better with the core of what you want for the character. Maybe the librarian, rather than bulking up, gains the attribute of being worried about the nutrition of the food served in their local soup kitchen.  

Shaking up your preconceptions at the start will produce more unique characters than your discovering more of what they’re like as you work through the draft. That way is more prone to following your unconscious slant. A flatter character, despite all that you’ve added, may be the inevitable result.

Exercise: Examine your notes for a character and ask yourself if you have experienced that type before: in a book, movie, or television show. If you have, why are you going in that direction? Somebody else already did that. Instead, flip the attribute on its head and choose the exact opposite. How would the character look turned upside-down?

“Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin.” —Hermann Hesse

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Connected Rings

When years have passed since the last English class, an adult, like this editor, can forget useful tools taught in the classroom. One of them recently came back into the view finder, and I was struck by its elegant simplicity. That is the practice of linked rings. You place a character in each ring and draw lines between them. Then you write what qualities each possesses that influences the other.

Elena Ferrante may have been aware of this tool when writing My Brilliant Friend, because she does such an incredible job of building character relationships. That practice relies on intuition and the flow of the developing manuscript, to be sure, but why not give yourself a head start by clearly delineating major points you want for a pairing of characters?

What I see so often are buddies that bumble forward side by side rather than establishing a relationship foundation that can be deepened. Objectives are not defined; they grow closer only because they share so many scenes together. I know one reason why: an author thinks, “My best friend X would say such a thing,” and that rings true. But does an outsider share that feeling?

When you list how Sydney and Peyton relate to each other, you can move beyond “extrovert” and “introvert” very quickly. You can start listing instances of their interactions. Consider early behavior first. What classroom antic of Sydney’s caused what reaction from Peyton, and then vice versa? Who made the good grades, and how did that affect the other? Which had the more stable parents, and how does that play out in higher education? These are not character traits; the trait matters only in its effect on the buddy. People in real life are shaped forever by childhood friendships, and you can use your particular memories to create a special bond. Even better, you can then write in implied aspects of the relationship—and don’t have to explain anything.

The initial notes can be supplemented by a second phase of consideration: what happens to them during the course of the book. This can be a crucial exercise, because in limning their in-book development, you can sense how important the relationship will be. Is the childhood friendship going to morph into one that is more distant? If so, why spend a lot of time writing about it? Is the relationship going to reach a crisis point that packs an emotional wallop? How important is that—i.e., when will that occur in the novel? By the use of the rings, you can shape what appeals to you without spending months lurching down a blind alley. 

Exercise: Links between two characters can also pinpoint what quality of a character will emerge most sharply with whom. If you have two friends who bring out the same quality, you have duplication of function. Separate out each character so that they show a different quality. That way the character’s companions won’t be an amorphous scrum.

“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.” —Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Pawns in the Author’s Match

One problem that I encounter frequently with first-time novelists is their patchy use of minor characters. By and large, authors do understand that their protagonist should show up on a regular basis. Yet the supporting characters often are regarded as chess pieces to be moved in order to advance the plot or, worse, an author’s themes. 

This occurs for a variety of reasons. One stems from the organic nature of building a novel. When you first start off, you usually have only a broad idea of how the plot is going to turn out. As the story moves forward, you find that characters you like, or realize you are writing well about, become more important. But others remain on the level of plot functions—they move the plot forward. Sometimes they are better drawn (let’s say, adorned chess pieces) and move the plot forward several times. 

Another reason might be termed the totem character. That person exists in the novel to exemplify a particular thematic point. For example, in a novel about the Vietnam War era, a character might show up, shoot off his big toe in order to escape draft induction, and then drop out of the book. As a reader, how am I supposed to react to that? I do know that people injured themselves in order to avoid being shipped overseas. While vaguely horrified, I feel no emotion toward such a cameo character. 

A third reason originates from an author’s personal background. A common figure from our gloaming past is the bully. She rules her corner of the playground and woe betide anyone she selects for torment. Or, she shames the otherwise engaging heroine in a furtive act, such as smoking dope in high school. The bully can be carried on for hundreds of pages as a brooding malign presence, but if she has no other defining characteristics besides slobbering sadism, is the reader really going to care?

It is your job to assign dramatic weight. If someone is going to commit a significant act, give that job to a major supporting character. That character isn’t a pawn; because you give him regular coverage, he’s a knight. Better yet, align the character with the protagonist.  Have your heroine react to that blown-off toe. Luke, what the hell were you thinking? By the same token, give the bully insecurities. If I know he fears his father, I might want virtue to triumph—for the bully’s own good.  

Exercise: Examine your manuscript with an eye out for distractions. That’s what pawns often are: they distract attention that might be devoted to your protagonist. Could you pull a scattered incident more closely to your main characters? Could you elevate that pawn by providing more coverage before and after the incident so that we get to know that character—and care what happens to her? 

“Without heroes we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go.”             ―Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Keep the Laughs Coming

Satire can make for a wonderful read when placed in capable hands. So many social conventions as well as belief systems are absurd. Yet what starts as a barrel of laughs can be doomed in the long run if an author does not employ a variety of tools to keep the novel’s turns fresh. 

The first is to keep one primary plot aim true. While it’s fun to read about characters taking constant swipes, the story can devolve into a puppet show of tricksters and fools if someone is not staying on the beam. That character may well be the most slashing maverick of them all as long as her cause is meaningful, such as curing malaria. The reader then can keep rooting for justice to be served through all the mayhem.

Second, provide enough plotting so that the novel does not remain on the same starting premise. An arrogant bully can lose swagger if he keeps dissing the same characters about the same topic. A satire about the development of a miracle drug, say, had better move beyond the laboratory and the boardroom, or you’re done in 80 pages. A further stage in this scenario might be a hypochondriac in a trial phase, the head of the FDA review board, a member of Congress agog about the benefits of a side effect, etc. 

A third asset is a large cast of characters. What seems extremely funny when one character takes a beating can start to look like meanness after repeated blows. A hedge fund raider, for instance, can beat up on a hapless CEO only so much before we start wishing the CEO had some redeeming quality. That’s not to mention the repetition factor. Even a running gag needs new circumstances to remain vibrant. If you advance the plot steadily, that will entail adding new characters. You can not only use them in new settings. You can also insert new players into the matrix of old slings and arrows as a way add new variety to what seemed tired.

You might also consider starting with a subplot from the beginning, headed by an absurd character. In the running example being used, this might be a mad scientist working for a second biogenetics company who comes at the malaria issue with a patently quack solution. This personage also provides a break from the main plot, and that is helpful because switching back and forth by itself helps to keep plot lines fresh. That, in essence, is the entire ballgame: keep showing us new tricks.

Exercise: An outline can be valuable before starting a satire. You can lay out the characters in opposition at each stage. Not only that, you can sense from afar when a plot thrust is losing gas. That’s when a new plot line/character needs to be introduced. You can also sketch out how old and new characters can intertwine for new twists on old gags.

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  —E. B. White

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How to Dig

The internet is a boon for any author seeking information about a topic, but the very multiplicity of information sources can lead to hours of wasted research time. A Google entry can call up dozens of websites that contain variants of the same information. That’s because so many online writers are amateur historians or scientists or what have you. How can you dig down deeper to find stuff that really will interest readers?

Not surprisingly, one fruitful method stems from an age-old practice, back when writers would comb through books. At the bottom of an article you will find the footnotes’ sources. This is true of any Wikipedia article, for instance. The writer of that article is likely more of a specialist than you are, and the sources used therefore have more substance. A search for “Five Corners,” a notorious New York City slum of yesteryear, will yield an article wherein one source is the book Five Corners. Within its 441 pages you can find all sorts of information, some of which can occasion new research forays.

While that particular book needs to be purchased or borrowed from the library, there is plenty of other source material that can be found right online. Many older books and journal articles of any age are compiled on scholarly websites such as JSTOR. While some demand a fee to sign up, these prices can be nominal, and many times you don’t have to pay at all. A scholarly journal article may run only 10 pages, but you might find 10 facts that illuminate what you want for your fictional world.

Depending on the age of the books cited, many of them belong in the public domain. That is, anyone can reproduce the book. It’s extremely helpful for all readers that big tech companies have decided they should use that right to make the books available online. The Google Books site has hundreds of books available for free, and the same is true through applications like iBooks. Even books that are still under copyright can be available to read if you merely register for a website.

All of this hunting for books for free bypasses the fruitful avenue of buying used books. After assessing how germane a book is to your subject, you may decide that spending 10 or 15 bucks is a wise investment. You can find nearly new books on sites such as Book Finder and Alibris. I should point out that I’m not dismissing the attractive option of purchasing a new book. If it really interests you, don’t you want it for your library?

Another option, which I’m leaving for last only because it is the most traditional, is using your local libraries. All of them have online catalogues these days, and a number of the websites you’ll find expressly have a box to enter your zip code to find a local library that has your book. You may still spend many happy hours in the stacks even you come to them from your laptop.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” —C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Where Do the Insights Go?

As a novel is being written, stray thoughts about characterization can come unbidden to an author. You realize a key background fact about a relationship, say, could be told in a certain way, and you write it down. You don’t know where it will go, but you do know it is worth keeping.

That then prompts a question: where do you place the observations about characters? Let’s use a concrete example by way of illustration. Let’s say that an older brother, Carl, has come back from being away for an extended time, such as to college, and a younger sibling, Reid, feels Carl has somehow changed and that their relationship will never be the same again. Nice thought, but what can you do with it?

You have to make a decision about where it belongs in the arc of the relationship. If placed early in a novel, it becomes a setup piece. Reid, to use the example, realizes it when the novel still has hundreds of pages to go. What is it setting the stage for? Or, it could be one of a number of setup pieces that will form a mystery about why the change has occurred. What has Carl been doing while he’s away, and how will that impact Reid later?

If it is placed later, it becomes more of a plot stake. A bunch of setup work was leading up to this realization. The revelation could proceed onto a climactic break, such as Reid’s finally breaking free of her older brother’s domination. He’s already checked out of the relationship, so why can’t she? You can also use it as an end point in order to lay out a step-by-step process during which the change is discovered.

A further consideration is: how important is it to the story you are developing? Maybe it should be relegated to just another one of the dozens of insights that hopefully enrich the novel. You have to assess whether this sibling relationship is worth building as a major arc, or is better ranked as an incidental factor in Reid’s larger wave of rebellion. Maybe bad-girl friend Deloris deserves a larger share of attention. 

In other words, you know you like the sterling nugget you wrote. Yet it will remain minor if you don’t allow your mind to roam over the possibilities. Maybe the process of your subconscious brought you to the nugget for a reason. 

Exercise: One good practice is maintaining a separate notebook or electronic file specifically for these jottings. Unless every single word you write sparkles effortlessly, these stray bits can become studs that tone up the novel. Even better, they can force you, when writing a new draft, to craft all of your sentences to match their standard.

“From a little spark may burst a flame.” —Dante Alighieri

Copyright 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Striking Gold

In a world awash in forensic details, a writer who wishes to include mystery elements in the story can forget a basic lesson from the days of yore. DNA is good, ViCAP is good, hacker tricks are good, but such technical advances tend to appeal to us because we are too dumb to understand that stuff. They serve as points of instruction, if you will. Yet myths and other tales from the distant past found other ways to tantalize. At the heart of many of them was an object of great power.

These days readers won’t accept a protagonist who meets a mermaid holding a golden ring, but you can use the ring. Anything unique and valuable has an intrinsic fascination. Such objects serve as touchstones in our subconscious, relying on a more primal urge. If a woman hungers for a golden amulet, we instinctually understand why she could go mad in the pursuit of it. 

So how does that notion work practically? Let’s say a contractor steam-shoveling the foundation of a new house uncovers a skeleton. By all means bring on the crime technicians. But if one bony finger is adorned with a gemstone with obscure runes engraven on it, the subconscious lust within us for such a talisman commands our attention. Who is this person who would possess such an object? What are those runes all about? Why didn’t the killer seize the gemstone?

You heighten the reader’s powers of concentration with such an age-old feature. The pragmatic detective will try to link the object to the slain victim’s nearest and dearest. When the divorced husband claims to know nothing about it, his ignorance causes outrage. You fool, how could you not know about the stone? You can devise an expert in runes who studies the object and comes up with an obscure phrase: At midnight rises the chariot, or whatever you like, as long as it can be explained when the proper context is finally provided. As new clues turn up, the investigator can keep asking how they relate to the gem. 

In this era of zoned to a cell phone, we have merely submerged our primitive desires. In everyone’s heart lurks the wish for a rich relative who will die and leave us a pot of gold. Layer on the cool tech, but you may find that what the reader remembers after putting down the book is the scrawl on the gemstone.

Exercise: Finding a suitable object of rabid desire is easy. Just start reading a body of myths that spark your interest. Christian lore, Irish lore, Egyptian lore, are filled with stories of Aladdin types. Once you find an idea that intrigues you, think of how the talisman can be fitted into your book as a twist: the secret underlying the glow.

“The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.” —H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.