Spoiler warning: Skin Game (Jim Butcher), Inferno and The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown)
A while back, I posted an angst about point of view and the pacing of information reveals in my novel. My novel is, at its core, a mystery. The answers to the mystery gradually unfold for the reader as the protagonists investigate and make discoveries. In the first draft, I set a major “reveal” towards the end of the novel. The challenge was setting up that reveal without giving it away.
More often than not when you ask me who my favorite character in a book, film, or television series is, it’s the hero. Not that I don’t appreciate the grayer characters, the morally ambiguous types–tricksters, shady allies and informants, double-agents, self-serving baddies with sympathetic pasts and motivations. But I think sometimes those grayer characters get overvalued, proclaimed “way more interesting” than the heroes, who are decried as boring and predictable when the do the right thing, and lambasted when they make a mistake. Similarly, fans who like hero characters are made to feel like throwbacks to 1952.
But where would we be without the heroes? A story full of characters whose primary motivations are self-serving or up for grabs may make an interesting read/viewing experience, but an abundance of stories like that leave me feeling ungrounded. Morally gray characters are like icing without the cake. I need to have someone in the story who I can root for without feeling like I washed myself with a dirty rag. Someone far from perfect, but who shows genuine courage, and who I know is trying to do the right thing, even if they mess it up a lot along the way. Even if, in the end, they fail.
An engaging hero character requires work on the part of the writer. Many heroic characters face odds so steep that their success, or the traits they possess that allow their success, make them larger than life and difficult to relate to. Giving them flaws that humanize them, though, is tricky. If a hero character is flawed in ways that make him or her unlikable, a reader/viewer can feel manipulated by the narrative–as if they’re “supposed” to like them, even if they don’t.
One thing to remember, though, is that there is a difference between the viewer/reader rooting for the hero even though s/he’s a better man than you, gunga din, and being able to “relate to” him or her. I often don’t relate to the heroes that I find myself rooting for. I can’t imagine being them. But I root for them nevertheless, because the writer has made them sympathetic, human, and likeable.
It’s a bit embarrassing, though, to be asked who your favorite character is and have to “admit”:
Oh, Highlander? Duncan Macleod
Harry Potter series: Harry Potter
Merlin BBC: well, Merlin, of course
Angel the Series: Angel
Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Ben Sisko
Once Upon A Time: Emma Swan
Harry Dresden: Harry Dresden
…and so on.
It’s not always the case though. My favorite ST: TNG character was Data. But of course, he was the epitome of the awkwardly sincere trying-to-be-the-best-of-humanity. And my favorite character on Lost was Hurley, but y’know, Everyman with a Heart of Gold, he was. On ST: Voyager, I liked Be’lanna Torres. I have a thing for the fucked-up tough girls. But I’m not sure I would have stayed glommed onto the angry, screwed-up babes if they weren’t flawed-but-trying-to-be-a-good-person. To wit: Faith on BtVS/AtS. Although she was never my favorite character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I never really had one, except possibly the foursome of Buffy+Giles+Willow+Xander. The collective heroic.
Do I get points if my favorite Anne Rice vampire was Armand? He was no saint. I could never stand Lestat, but I liked Louis quite a bit. I prefer my vampires with a soul.
Now here is a lesson I need to take to heart:
I think I spent more time during the writing of the first draft of my novel explaining what was going on to my beta reader verbally after the fact of her reading a chapter than I spent writing the chapter.
In my defense, I thought I was writing an entirely different kind of book than I was. I thought I was writing a book in which the true nature of one of the heroes, several of the villains (including one who really isn’t a villain, but must act like one), and a few other characters is revealed very gradually and is only explained outright around chapter 16 or 17 of 23. What I wanted was for the reader to uncover the answer to a mystery, gradually, with the heroes, as the clues unfolded.
I imagined my book was something like my childhood favorite, Alexander Key’s Escape to Witch Mountain, where you’d have a perfectly comprehensible adventure about two magically-gifted orphans even if you never got the “big reveal” the book/film was unfolding towards (that the children are in fact aliens, not witches). The book would still make sense without that ending, but that ending makes better sense of the events and clues scattered through the story than what you assume through much of the story.
Based on that model, however, I struggled for 17 or 18 of the 23 chapters hiding every thought, every word, every action my more “unusual” characters had that would give the answer away too soon, until I had a cast of characters who were doing incomprehensible things for incomprehensible reasons, or who had to be made ignorant of things I had fully planned for them to know upfront so they wouldn’t “give it away” to the reader until the characters who didn’t know found out, too.
So now I know I am writing a story in which I need to tell the reader much more upfront, and in which I have to figure out the delicate art of knowing when, and if, I can hold back details to maintain the sense of mystery.
And that’s… harder.
I suppose I didn’t have an actual recorded New Year’s resolution to report about my writing to the webosphere, but I nevertheless thought that might be something I’d do for accountability purposes, now that I don’t have a reader waiting for new material as I did in my first draft. Somehow, though, the first two weeks of January passed before it occurred to me to do so. It is now mid-January. Mid-January! How did *that* happen?
Well, at least it feels like mid-January ought to feel. Brrr.
So, on the novel-writing front: there has been no writing. Which is not to say there has been no work on the novel. I have been doing plot-reinvisioning (work left over from PlotWriMo last month), and this past week, I have been doing research to feed the world-building muse I “played by ear” or something in the first draft. Short story long, I was not happy with the story-world rules I had going in that draft. They were not well thought out, and now they need to be before I spill another pixel on plotting.
I may, at some point, do some free writing just to stretch the writing muscles a bit, since I haven’t done much “writing” writing since the end of October.
Why is it I feel guilty–like I’m not “working on my novel” if I am not writing the text of the story?
The problem I’m having with setting a writing goal for the coming year is that there is no one task I do everyday when I’m writing. Not even putting words on a page. Which is why a daily word count goal is meaningless. Jeez, if my goal was word count alone, I could do that with a manuscript like that creepo was typing up in The Shining. Writing is also not (for me) a linear process of going from page one to page 341 (or whatever). I don’t write start to finish. Sometimes, the end has to come first, or the middle, because those sections help determine the beginning. So setting a goal of “one chapter a week” or every two weeks or every month is also not workable.
I hop between composing, editing, plotting, and research depending on where the energy of my creative focus is that day and what my story currently needs. Yeah, I edit while composing. Bad me, no cookie. I go back and rewrite previously-written stuff when I’ve changed my mind about how it should go because sometimes FIXING old stuff is psychologically necessary for moving forward with newer stuff that contradicts it.
So I think the best daily goal is a time chunk. Two and a half hours a day, six days a week. Which comes out to only 15 hours a week.
My main goal in January is re-visioning my MacGuffins. The “obscure, powerful” archeological artifacts that are at the center of a story that is really science fiction, not fantasy. They can’t be supernatural–they need to be Clarkesque technology, but they can’t be ridiculously complicated Clarkesque technology, either. So much of January will be taken up by research and contemplation, and very little of the writing I do on this task will end up in the 100,000 final words of the story.
And yet, my goal is to have a draft worthy of beta-reading and possible publication by the end of the calendar year. Onward.