Stripped Down, Bare Chested

One of the perennial difficulties I have as an editor is getting male authors to provide well-rounded heroes. Like men in general, these characters tend to work hard, play hard, and have difficulties understanding the opposite sex. Yet in an age when women dominate the editorial ranks at major publishing houses, the stripped-down hero usually ends up in the rejection pile. Guys, you have to deliver more of the goods.

You might want to use connections. That is, create connections between characters. Although this process does further plot, in the sense that interpersonal dynamics produces friction, it primarily forces an author to focus on how the characters relate to each other. One of the aims is to help define what is different about each character, primarily the protagonist. If Malcolm is sullen, for instance, who in the book knows why? Who has been exasperated by it, and what consequences has Malcolm suffered because of it? 

Already you can start thinking to yourself: where was the starting point—that’s one connection. How has that played out in his romantic involvements—that’s possibly several connections, each different. Regarded by itself, sullen is an unapproachable island. Regarded in terms of connections, Malcolm is being pulled in all sorts of directions—and he may well wish he was less sullen. That is complex, interesting.

An equally important function of connections is creating ongoing relationships during the course of the book. Too often I ask an author to address sullenness, and he responds with a quarter-page back story about an abusive mother. Yet a connection means that the abusive mother would participate in the novel: calling the hero about some persistent issue, getting in his way when he has important stuff to do, and best of all, forcing the author to reveal how the hero relates to his mother. 

Ask yourself: how do you talk to your mother? What secrets does she know that reveal how you tick?  For what did she praise you? About what did she complain bitterly, unceasingly, about you, or maybe your father (and thus you by association, you male lout). That connection does not have to be a mother, of course. But you see what I mean. When you are forced to make the hero interact, on an ongoing basis, he’s going to reveal scars and warts—that make him stand out from his army.

Exercise: Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and think of the three most important traits your protagonist possesses. Write them down, leaving space below each to fill out. Now pick any of them at random, the one that grabs you right away. Do you have a supporting character who can help reveal that trait? Could you find 8-10 places during the course of the novel where that trait could be displayed, commented upon by another character, etc.? By conscious effort, you can add another layer to that character.

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”  ― Ray Bradbury

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.