Keeping Your Balance

An author either starts with or accumulates a storehouse of information about their major characters. This can consist of sketched character notes early in the process, as you are feeling your way forward, or data gleaned from research into a particular profession. It is piled up, in an ancillary file, waiting to be unloaded into the manuscript. This holds true whether you wrote the notes months ago or during the last week, as you saw the need arise.

How much is used at any given time depends on how busy your character is. If a detective, to use a basic example, is tracking down clues for two linked murders—interviewing witnesses, sending material to a crime lab, etc.—you’re probably not going to stop for two pages to discuss her hyperactive father, even though you know it is crucial to understanding her ultra-calm personality. 

Now let’s flip to the other side of the ledger: the killer. He has already done his dirty deeds. He has to wait for the detective to make some progress before he reacts to her threat. So now is a great time to dump in those two pages of his mother and her adroit iron. Actually, since he has to spend maybe 100 pages for the detective to catch up, all of his early scenes might be background- or milieu-heavy. 

What is the effect on the reader? It’s like reading two books: one action-based, one rich with lore. The detective is kicking ass, while the increasingly boring murderer is sitting on his thumbs. On the other hand, the detective looks slight compared to the densely portrayed villain. She’s a hard worker but sort of a lightweight, you know?

The problem is the imbalance in plotting. A setup was arranged at the beginning whereby one force in the good-evil equation has already accomplished their initial plot business.  You want the reader to know what a horrible man he is—and hey, here are all these notes you wrote on him. I’ll also point out, by the way, the effect of placing the detective’s notes later in the book. She’ll still be running second-best to the richly portrayed villain—because you told the reader his characterization was so important, he should get his full coverage first. 

The solution is to run two levels of plotting. While the detective is busy with the past, the killer is moving on to new deeds. When you drop in information about one of them, you drop in info on the other. Action and info both in a chapter, keeping the dramatic weights evened out. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out only for background or research passages. For each character, write down the length of each one and on which page it appears. Your protagonist should get the most coverage earliest. That will signal to the reader who is dominant.

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine

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