Laying out Parameters

In the headlong charge that engulfs you as you’re writing a novel, you may find that the common sense that governs how you act in real life mysteriously escapes your protagonist or other important character. This applies especially when you are writing a book that is more heavily plotted. You know you want a certain plot turn in the next scene, and you point your point-of-view character toward that target. Or, you know how the story will turn out, so you position the scene so that it builds logically toward the climax. Nothing wrong with that, right?

If you don’t inhabit a character fully, you can forget what is perfectly obvious to a reader. Let’s say you have a character who early on says he belongs to a group that opposes a wind farm in a scenic location. Yet months later you write a scene in which he intermingles with those people, and he doesn’t know anyone. That’s because by that time you are focused on a clue that he is supposed to impart to your main character. You forget that the character is very well known by this crowd. That earlier fact is inconvenient for the scene, but you can’t shrug it off. You laid down that parameter. 

Let’s take another common problem. Your protagonist needs someone with whom to discuss what she has uncovered in a mystery so far. She’s a housewife, not a detective, so when she tells her husband the first time of her curiosity to follow up on clues related to a murder, her better half says, absolutely not. Don’t do something so dangerous. Despite this opposition, she still needs to hash out the developing clues. Think of the issue from your character’s point of view. She can’t use the husband as a sounding board. He has already said he doesn’t want her to play sleuth. Instead, she needs to confide in a third party, say a waiter at a lunch and breakfast café she frequents.  You may not only gain a new sounding board, but the added fillip of sexual intrigue as well. 

These examples can play out in countless different ways. The key is avoiding such blunders is to connect with that character to such a depth that you know what his relationship is to each of the people in each scene. You may find that practicing to think this way means you immerse yourself more fully in the character overall.

Exercise: When you review a scene, try to imagine what transpires from the point of view of every active character in the scene. If Sheila is introduced, as a good friend of BFF Lisa’s, what does Sheila know about the protagonist by way of Lisa? What does the protagonist think about Lisa once she learns what Sheila was told? Is she going to confide her next secret to Lisa, or is she going to avoid another embarrassing encounter like this one with Sheila? 

“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”  —Charles Péguy

Copyright @ John Paine, 2023

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