Stripped Down, Bare Chested

How many times have you read what Character B says about the protagonist and thought, “I didn’t realize that.” You’re accepting her opinion as the truth. In a nutshell, that shows you how powerful connections are. When you use your characters in a way that shines light on others, the reader is the beneficiary. You’ve let us in: we are in the know.

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 realize: a parent was likely 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 relationships with staying power 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. I can almost see the author as he finishes: with a smile, smacking his hands—job done. 

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, disrupting his sullen contemplation, and best of all, forcing the author to reveal how the hero relates to his mother. 

Now we’re getting somewhere. How do you talk to your mother? What secrets does she know that reveal how you tick? What are the most salient memories you have of her? 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 with others, on an ongoing basis, he’s going to reveal scars and warts that make him stand out.

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. Do you have a supporting character who can help reveal that trait? Could you find 7-10 places during the course of the novel where that trait could be displayed, commented upon by the other character, etc.? 

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