Sunday, November 1, 2015

What Are You Doing Here?

Whether I’m writing a full-length novel, a short story, or any other work of fiction, there’s a question I ask of every character I introduce: What are you doing here?

If your characters don’t “earn their keep” on the pages, then they have no business being there in the first place.  They’re occupying valuable words and page space that could otherwise be devoted to additional dialogue, narrative, action, or more deserving characters.

And what does “earn their keep” entail?  That can be answered several ways.

Within the realm of principal characters (in “Child of Privilege,” that would include Dana, Richard, Maggie, Angelo, and Reavis), this judgment is a no-brainer.  Can they carry their weight?  Do they possess the depth of character, the personality, the strength, and the literary texture to carry their assigned story elements and retain the reader’s interest?  Do they have the flexibility to go with the flow and evolve along with the storyline and the suspense arc? (No suspense arc in your story?  You’ve got REAL trouble.)   Do they have literary muscle?  And most importantly: Do they have the legs to run the marathon that is a full-length novel?

If not, the author has a problem ... a major one.

A writer’s lifeline to the audience is the emotional tie that develops between characters and readers.  That lifeline doesn’t necessarily need to be amiable either.  Remember the worldwide buzz created by the late Larry Hagman’s skin-crawling portrayal of the psychotic oil baron J.R. Ewing on the Dallas primetime soap?  There isn’t a villain in the history of literature that wouldn’t be tickled pink to command the kind of following that ol’ J.R. enjoyed.

It is critically important that each principal character develop some sort of emotional relationship with readers.  The basis of that relationship can run the gamut of human feelings: sympathy (Dana), anger (Maggie), hatred (Richard), encouragement (Greg), disgust (Reavis), and perhaps forgiveness (Angelo).  Whatever the nature of that connection, it must be strong, evolving, and palpable to the reader.  Otherwise, that character comes across as hollow, unsatisfying, and shallow.  Every other element of your novel—no matter how well-crafted—will suffer by association.

And the author has some work to do.

In my humble opinion, dear reader, two factors keep the downloads downloading, the pages turning, and the books moving off the shelf: relatable characters (in a lovable OR detestable sense), and a plot with more unexpected twists and turns than a politician’s opinions during an election year.

If your characters don’t cut the emotional mustard with the readers, the most dizzying storyline in literary history won’t propel your novel to success.  There will always be something lacking.  It’s like trying to drive a Rolls-Royce with a lawnmower engine; it just ain’t gonna happen.

Plus, your reviewers will slice-and-dice you more effectively than a Veg-O-Matic ever could.

For a novel of its length (approximately 96,000 words), Child of Privilege is fairly well-populated.  Aside from the principal players, the supporting cast is considerable:

·        Wanda (the vulgar woman on the bus);

·        Red, the lecherous good ol' boy club owner;

·        Deputy Sheriff Barnett;

·        The deputy at the Summertree County Jail;

·        The abusive woman (and her battered child) at the carnival;

·        Annie the waitress at the Junction Cafe;

·        Greg Parmenter;

·        And the other detectives who relentlessly hound Dana.

As you read the book (and I really hope you will), you’ll find the supporting players—regardless of their roles’ importance--adding his/her own unique flavor to the stew.  Each is important; each contributes to the reader’s pleasure (hopefully) in reading the novel.  Each has proven to me that he or she belongs there and is necessary for the effective telling of the story.  If not, trust me, they would’ve been cut long before the novel ever appeared on Amazon’s digital bookshelf.

For example, the “Wanda” character has significant action and dialogue for only a single chapter.  Yet, SHE altered our heroine’s trajectory in the overall storyline.  It was HER evil deed that compelled Dana to appear in the wet t-shirt contest at Red’s honky-tonk. 

(I’m intentionally omitting something here to pique your curiosity a little.)

THAT, as a result, got Dana arrested and unceremoniously ushered into a County Jail cell.

THAT, in turn, caused her to be turned over to the reptilian detective Reavis Macklin.

(I’m intentionally omitting something else here to pique your curiosity a little more.)

THAT eventually resulted in Dana’s arrival in Beckett Junction and her less-than-fairytale introduction to Greg Parmenter.

(I’m intentionally omitting a lot more here to pique your curiosity even further.  Read the book to find out what!)

Think about the wide-ranging chain of events triggered by one minor character with a one-chapter role.  Your supporting cast--if they are well-developed and strong enough to convincingly execute their individual subplots--can add incredible depth and richness to your novel.  Their effectiveness can add additional layers of believability and connection to themselves, the main characters, and the story as a whole.  Don’t hesitate to carefully formulate them and include them in the story ... but always use wisdom and good judgment.

I’ve always believed that characters are introduced into a novel to serve one of two purposes: to interact with a situation; or to interact with another character.  If they do neither, ask yourself why they’re there at all.  The more the merrier shouldn’t apply to the business of characters in fiction writing.  Too many actors clutter the stage and distract audience attention from those who are truly earning their keep and deepening your story’s reader connection.  Perhaps less is more would be a more beneficial guideline.

I use a standard series of questions to guide me when dealing with the sticky issue of character creation.

Does a character deliver meaningful dialogue or perform a critical action at a decisive juncture of the story?  Does he/she assist another actor in terms of plot movement or character development?  Does he/she harm, injure, or impair another actor?  Is he/she a danger to him/herself ... or to another?  Or is he/she perhaps a savior or benefactor to another?

Finally, the DECIDING question: Would the work be as effective without this character?

The answers to these questions usually decide the character’s fate for me: either doomed to the netherworld of my word processor’s CUT function; or included in the manuscript file to live another day ... or at least until the next editing pass.

But don’t spend too much time mourning for the dearly-departed actor.  You’ll probably write many other novels needing other characters for other purposes.  Besides, coming back from the dead is always an option.  In the limitless dream-world of entertainment, resurrection is neither impossible nor uncommon.

It worked for Bobby Ewing on Dallas, didn’t it?

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