Vague Shadows

A good novel is encyclopedic in its coverage of so many different realms. Chief among them are the attitudes of the lead characters toward each other. When you’re writing truly from one point of view, an entire history of a relationship can be revealed in what a character assumes about another—without the author having to expressly comment on what either of them is like. 

Where does this history come from? From the nether regions of your brain. Even if you are basing a fictional relationship on a real one, you still have to cull from the complexity of those years certain ways of interacting that can form a cohesive bond within the confines of your book. That’s where your reliance on knowing how you and your best friend, say, work(ed) together can lead you astray.

That’s because your characters are going to be more extreme than the real-life models. That means their past history will have correspondingly sharp highlights. As you’re writing, this altered past comes into play. Let’s assume you have made real-life teenage drinking and drug escapades more serious. You know you want the friend to be more hardened, maybe having served time in prison or in a dry-out clinic. Yet how, if the two were supposed to be buddies, can you keep your protagonist savory enough that a reader isn’t turned off by their evil?

Unless you sketch out this grimmer past, you won’t know. You’ll have a vague notion of how a plot turn might go, but because your made-up version of the past still is swimming in the ether of the real past, you’ll end up continuing to put off having to decide. Chapters may be written down, in which the two have solid dialogue, attitudes about plot events that ring like a bell, etc., but underneath—where you have the opportunity to really make them distinctive—you’re still undecided about their roles. 

You have to stop working on the story. Forget about making headway. Figure out what the two did in your fictional past. Start with character notes: what are the buddy’s family and environmental impacts that made them the bad influence on the protagonist? What was the first bad thing the two did together? How, as they got older, did they start to drift apart? How did the hero escape going to prison, as a for-instance?

Then write out several scenes that you know probably won’t make it into the novel. How did the two interact when the evil was committed? Was one intent on malice while the other was talked into it? After it happens, what are the two divergent reactions? How does that impact the way they approach another act of evil a month/year later? Write out that next scene. What you’ll find is that you will learn the answers. Once you know, then you can write implicitly about their interactions in the present day.

“My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic.” —Spike Milligan

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.