19 January 2019

Don't Mess With The Reader: 3 Characters

For those coming to this short series here, I’ve been catching up on my fiction reading which, unfortunately, led to an unexpected amount of eye-rolling. The problems I’m covering should never have made it to the publisher’s editor. They should have been noticed by the author during the writing and corrected. It is the author’s name on the cover; it is the author’s responsibility. 

If you need to read my full why rant, jump to 1 Openings, otherwise let’s cut to the chase.

Characters come in three categories: mains, subsidiaries, and walk-ons.

Mains are the novel’s lead characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, and their close buddies or sounding boards. They are named. The reader will learn something about their backgrounds and their motivations. They are part of the on-going action; one or all will have sections written from their viewpoint.

Subsidiaries are lesser characters who help support the real world environments, and/or the theme/s, and/or the subplots. They may be named, or they may only be delineated on the page by their job descriptions. They often walk onto the page early in the story and keep popping back throughout the story, but the reader learns very little about their backgrounds or their motivations. This information isn’t necessary, though it could be relevant, to the on-going action, or more likely the theme.

Walk-ons are just that, they walk on, or in to the story to provide a specific service within the real world environment – to sell the protagonist a sandwich and/or comment on... the weather, the protagonist’s demeanour, whatever... thus giving the protagonist a “breather” moment in which to take stock within the unfolding storyline. The specific service the walk-on provides might be very specific – a talkative taxi driver asking if the protagonist has “heard the news” and, in ignorance of its significance, conveys sparse details which are pertinent to the unfolding storyline. Walk-ons tend to walk-on just the once and are very rarely named.

The more subtle the writing, the more there will be levels of importance within each set. These character sets are not ring-fenced, either, and a walk-on might rise in importance to become a subsidiary, but the writer is treading a fine line and there may need to be earlier seeding so this doesn’t come as an unintentional surprise to the reader.

A subsidiary, on the other hand, rarely promotes him/herself to main character status; it’s just too much of a leap, and having this new main character explain, in a paragraph, how it reached this stage is simply bullshit exposition by a lazy writer. It also has a habit of dragging the reader out of the fictional reality to stare at the page and utter What?! The suspension of disbelief, which the reader so willingly entered into on opening the book, has been fractured and the reading experience never regains the same intensity. Basically, the reader no longer trusts the writer.

Creating a novel is an organic enterprise, even when a detailed outline and synopsis are used. Storylines and character motivations can and do change in the writing. Fine, accept it as a gift from whichever muse you happen to cherish. It does not, however, mean that these changes should be bolted on as an extra. They need to be seeded beforehand, their intention dripped into the forward momentum before they become, or attempt to become, a pertinent reality.

Next time: 4 Seeding Information

The series so far: 1 Openings ¦ 2 A Sense of Place

Starting out? Reading A Writer’s Mind… covers everything from plot elements to the use of alliteration, rhythm and subliminal detailing. Paperback or ebook. Gain an insider’s view:

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