Monday, June 18, 2018

The Minor Character

A minor character is a character who makes one or two appearances in a story, or if he has more appearances, he has no real character growth. He can be anything from the stable boy who tends the horses to the best friend’s brother who has a few comic moments.

Here are things to consider when you have minor characters in a scene. 

If all the characters in a scene are minor to the plot, you need to ask yourself whether you need the scene.  

If the minor character scene is only there to tell readers something about the main character, then you should move it to a scene that is necessary with characters who are more important.  

If the person is familiar to the point-of-view character, very little physical description is needed unless the physical description has importance in the scene.  

For example, Jim studies his friends and decides to take Fred with him to meet the bad guy because Fred is built like a linebacker and is good in a physical fight.

However, if it's in the heroine's viewpoint, and she's introduced to the hero's friends, she will pay attention to what they look like and their names so more physical detail is needed.

If the scene needs a waitress who adds nothing to the scene beyond taking the food order, you can use some line like "the waitress took their order and left."

If the hero is flirting with the waitress to make the heroine jealous, then a bit more of a physical description may be needed and a bit more personality if the character flirts back.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

Character Change and Backstory

QUESTION: My main character used to be a bad guy, but now he’s not.  He’s gone elsewhere and changed his name.  How much of his past should I include?  Do I need to write scenes from his past?  Will readers believe he has changed?

If his past (backstory) is important, and it probably should be, you don’t have to include scenes of that past unless you think the reader wouldn’t understand him or his backstory is really complex.  Usually in a case like this, his past life must impact his present one, and backstory scenes are interlaced with the present day.  

Remember that every time a scene from the past is inserted, the reader stops dead to get his mind into the past then must stop dead again to get back in the present.  This kind of back and forth is not a good thing in popular fiction like fantasy.

Backstory can be inserted easily enough during present time scenes through dialogue, thoughts from the main character, and events.   

He could be in a tavern to meet another character and hear a drunk nearby talking about his former identity's bad-ass behavior and think — “He'd piss his pants if he knew he was sitting a few bar stools away from me."  Then you could have another character say, "But (insert former name here) was decent enough.  He'd never fight around civilians and that time he rescued the child from the burning house instead of taking the money.  You wouldn't see (insert new bad guy's name here) do that." 

Sooner rather than later, you’ll also need to tell the reader why he chose to change.  Again, it need not be a huge info dump.  

As to whether readers will accept a bad guy as a good guy, part of this is determined by genre expectations from its readers.  A truly despicable character would never be accepted as a hero in a romance, but, elsewhere, readers have a lot more forgiveness about this.  In your reading of the genre you are writing, do you recall characters who switched moral sides and did it work and why?  

Two superhero movies I can recall where the bad guy turned into the good guy are MEGAMIND and DESPICABLE ME. The change in their characters was the story. 

And think also of Magneto in the X-Men series.  As a bad guy, he is morally and emotionally complex, and he's helped his former friend Charles Xavier more than once to save the day for everyone's sake. 

Usually, bad characters who change sides have already shown they are capable of good behavior with the bad behavior.  That makes it more believable.  A psychopath who changes to become a hero is totally unbelievable.

The trick is making your character's choices and changes believable.  If you do, the reader will accept them. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

State Your Full Name for the Jury

When I started writing, one of the standard rules of a novel was that the writer should tell the full name of a main or viewpoint character in their first viewpoint appearance.  Mary may be Mary for the rest of the novel, but her first viewpoint scene should have her as Mary Smith in that first mention.

This rule seems to have fallen by the wayside in many of the novels I read, and that’s a pity.  

I write mini-reviews of every book I read and share it with some of the reader lists I belong to, and I’ve spent lots of frustrating time trying to find a main character’s full name.  Somehow, just a first name doesn’t seem enough when talking about a character to me.  

Even more frustrating is an author who refuses to give any name to a viewpoint character.  One well-known paranormal suspense writer has gone to the extreme in this.  Her series is a paranormal version of CRIMINAL MINDS with psychic FBI agents and bad guys.  Many of the characters have viewpoints in each novel, and members of the FBI team makes appears in some novels as minor characters with viewpoints.  In an attempt to increase suspense or to be annoyingly coy, she will often not use the character’s name until late into the novel although who that character is doesn’t change anything when his name is mentioned.  

This is so beyond frustrating that I want to grab her lapels and tell her to stop it.  

One of the most important commandments of genre fiction is that the author does nothing to stop the reader in his tracks and jerk him out of the dream of the novel, and this kind of nonsense definitely does that.

Now, there are exceptions to always using a name.  If your bad guy has a viewpoint and you don’t want to reveal his identity yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to identify him as “he” or some other way.    Just be sure that the reader has some means of telling that “he” is the same person each time.  

Monday, May 28, 2018

Too Much or Not Enough Information

QUESTION:  Is it okay to leave the reader a little confused so that later on, when I reveal the secret to them, it’s surprising?  My main character withholds secrets from others and from the reader.   

It depends on what you mean by confuse.  If you are leaving out information so that what is happening makes very little sense or the main character is behaving in a bizarre manner with no real clue why she is, that’s a very bad thing.  If you give the reader more than a few “what the heck is happening, and why is she behaving like this?” moments, then the reader stops reading.  

If you mean not giving the reader all the information, that can work, but it is a tricky dance between giving the reader enough information and lying to the reader by withholding too much.  

With a major viewpoint character it works to leave out information if that character isn’t thinking about something. Readers don’t feel cheated if there’s really no reason for that character to be thinking about this subject, but, if this subject is up front and center in her thoughts, then the reader would feel cheated if important information is left out.

As a very broad example, imagine the heroine thinking during her first meeting with a guy who is attracted to her, but later, it is revealed she’s lesbian.  That’s leading the reader astray in a dishonest way.  If, however, she was married to a jerk who beat her, this information doesn’t have to be revealed until later unless there is a reason for her to fear the guy who is attracted to her.  

If it feels dishonest not to tell the reader something, then the surprise isn’t worth it because you may have lost the reader before the surprise is revealed, or the reader feels betrayed and lied to.

If you are confused about what to do, do it the way you feel works then trust your beta readers or critique partners to tell you if this works or not.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Goal, Cost, and Motivation

Have you ever started a novel where the main character decides to face an impossible task and an implacable enemy with the odds so far in favor of the bad guys that success, let alone survival, is minimal at best?

Sounds like a great novel, doesn't it?

Here are two novels I read where the main character deals with that impossible situation. In one novel, the hero must save his young daughter from a very ugly death. In the second, the heroine must find out the truth about the death of a young woman she's never met, and the outcome appears to have no real value to her. She's not even working for money.

I zipped through the first novel like a speed-reading lunatic to find out how the hero managed to save his little girl. The second novel I very nearly tossed away after the first few chapters because I hate stupid and suicidal main characters who have no real reason to go forward in an impossible situation, but I persevered out of curiosity and a fondness for dissecting author mistakes.

After over half the novel, the author of the second novel finally lets the reader know why the heroine has continued forward in the investigation, but by then, the damage has been done to the novel and the reader's reactions to the heroine. The reader also realizes that the author has cheated by withholding vital information which an author who is fair would not. 

At this point, the odds of the reader picking up the next book by this author are slimmer than the original chance of the hero's survival.

As an author, you must balance goal, cost, and motivation. If the goal and the probable cost for the main character is great, the character must have motivation that equals both.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Pace and Emotion

Action and a fast pace don't preclude emotion, and a story can't be all hack and slash.

Years ago, when the INDIANA JONES movies were so wildly popular, a publisher created an action/adventure book series with the pace of the opening scene of the original INDIANA JONES where disaster builds upon disaster upon disaster with no real stopping for breath.

I read the first book, and it was bloody awful because the action became boring and silly at such a lunatic pace, and there was so little personality to the main character or any of the other characters I didn't give a damn one way or the other what happened.

EXAMPLE: A bear chases the hero up a tree, he thinks the tree is safe, but it's rotten, and the bear begins to shove it over, the tree lands in the river, but it's infested with alligators, and there are bad guys on the other side of the river, and a bear on this side. He out swims the gators to a bridge and begins to climb up a vine growing up its side, but, ooops, there's a large poisonous snake right above him, and....

Needless to say, that series vanished without a trace after a few books.

Pace isn’t just violent act after violent act, or the characters moving from one place to another. It’s mixing characterization and elements that move the emotional and action plot forward. It’s giving the reader continual questions about the characters and what’s happening and answering a few of those questions as you move along.

It’s emotional consequences.

It’s having a quiet moment of introspection or a brief comic moment in the heat of a long battle that reminds the reader why they’re reading the story or why they like these characters.

Monday, May 7, 2018

I Am a Camera

In my blog entry on participant viewpoint , I talked about the dangers of using camera viewpoint in writing scenes, but the idea of a camera shooting the action can be useful when you are writing description.

As you describe a room from a character's viewpoint, imagine that the character is that camera as he scans the room as he enters. 

In a scene which doesn't start with high action such as a fight, he would scan right to left or left to right, and the important objects would be described in relationship to those near it. The character would see the piano, then the bar, then the poker tables on the far side. 

If some object or person is important--the character is looking for it or meeting him, etc., then that object or person is described first with the general impressions of the room then the details of the room can be filled in as needed. For example, if someone is coming at the viewpoint character with a sword, he won't notice the piano or the bar except as possible objects to hide behind.

When writing that description, the idea of the camera shot can also keep you from making a mistake in visual pacing.

For example, you are describing the room, then you put in a character's brief mental comment about something, then you go back to describing the room. That's the equivalent of beginning to pan the room with a camera then jerking the camera toward the main character's face, then the camera returns to panning.

By thinking of the visual description as camera work, you are less likely to make mistakes in visual and action pacing.