NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007 COLUMN
This month Norma Howell returns
as the guest columnist for Up From Down Under.
Whose Story is it?
by Norma Howell
Writers sometimes get caught up in the
joy of creation. If it's fun to create one character, why not make six of them?
Slow down! First, decide on the story.
Let's say you want to write a fantasy. What sort of human characters do
you need in fantasy beyond the hero and the villain? Some potential supporting
characters or villains are witches, warlocks, monks, a best friend or faithful servant, a love interest, and family members
of the main characters. In addition, there will be walk-on characters such as the boy who held the hero's horse at
the tavern, the serving wench who brought his ale, or the beggar who said, "The castle's down this road."
Don't try to introduce all the characters
and their relationships at once. First, decide whose story this will be and why
the reader should care about him or her.
Sounds easy, but who should have
the starring role? It should be the person who hurts the most, the one with the
most to lose if his goal isn't reached. Why? Because you want your reader
to be sympathetic, to care what happens to this character. If there's no connection between reader and character, the story
is tossed aside unread.
Let's assume you've decided the hero has
the most to lose. He has to have a name and a title, so how about Prince Eric? (Avoid unpronounceable names or names that sound alike. Don't confuse your reader.)
Eric's goal is to rescue his brother, Olaf,
whose life is in danger. A villain is bearing down on Olaf's castle, and Eric's worried because his only surviving brother
is ill, and the castle cannot withstand the villain's siege. Don't make it easy
on Eric and Olaf. You want the reader to worry, stay up at night, and turn pages.
Give Eric some trouble as he tries to reach his brother. Maybe bandits assault and wound him, or his horse goes lame. Will he make it? Show his concerns and
emotions, keep the tension high.
How do you help the reader bond with Eric? Make Eric likeable, someone you'd want for a friend. If the prince kicks dogs, beats
women, and steals money from his friends, nobody is going to care whether he reaches the castle in time. A likeable male may
be adventurous, tough, and worldly, but he should also be gentle and compassionate.
Like a knight, he should be a defender of the weak and helpless, and a faithful friend. If he has to kill, he shouldn't
enjoy doing it.
Develop his personality so you can get
inside his skin, and then get your reader in there. What does he do for fun?
What skills does he have? Does he like falconry, jousting or swordplay? Or does he hate falconry because he's allergic to
feathers, or because he thinks birds should fly free? Does he love figs, but hate grapes because he has to spit out the seeds?
Is he better with his fists than he is with a sword? That would be odd, because
he's a prince, but you might think of a reason.
Like all of us, he must have flaws. Maybe he's got a bad temper, or he can't stand heights. Since this fantasy takes place in the Middle Ages, when superstition was rampant, it's all right if he's
a little superstitious. He could be worried about cats because they might be
a witch's familiar, but he shouldn't be truly afraid of them.
His intelligence should be above average,
and he can be handsome, particularly if there's a love interest.. It doesn't hurt if he's clever, shrewd, or witty, but he
cannot be conceited, so if you use the old mirror trick to show what he looks like, have him dislike one or two of his features.
He cannot just think of himself as handsome and a charmer. That information needs to come from a supporting character,
possibly the love interest or an adoring mother or sister. You'll need to describe his clothing and his sword, but don't have
him prance about in finery, or he'll seem vain.
Show your reader this fellow from the inside
out, don't just tell the reader about him. If Eric loves animals, let him rescue
one, using the scene to show both his love of animals and his gentleness and compassion. The reader will get it, and will
like him without you saying, "Prince Eric loved dogs."
Now that he has a personality and
looks, give him a background. As his creator, you need to know a lot of things.
Did he have an enjoyable or hard childhood? Was he raised in a single-parent home? Does
he have siblings, and if so how many, what ages are they now, and what are their occupations? What was he doing before the
present story? You, as the writer, need to know all this stuff, and a lot more besides -- BUT your reader may not need
to know any of it.
Backstory, what happened before
this story began, can get your story put down quicker than a fly can buzz past your ear. It stops the action just when the
reader has developed an interest in the hero and his predicament. Who cares if Prince Eric had twelve brothers and sisters,
four of whom died in infancy, that there's a family history of insanity, or that his father was an alcoholic brute who beat
him? Bring in only what the reader needs to know, nothing else. Use dialogue
and flashback as much as you can to get it all in, and take your time. Backstory
should be slipped in quietly, a sentence or paragraph at a time. Try not to write
long paragraphs of backstory. Such paragraphs tell but do not show unless you've managed to write a flashback.
Earlier, I used the terms supporting
characters and walk-ons. Now, I'll tell you more about them. Think of your story as a movie. There's the good guy (hero/protagonist) on his way to the castle, and the bad guy (villain, antagonist)
who plans to stop him. They are engaged in a personal struggle, good against evil. The other characters are either supporting,
or they are walk-ons. Supporters, sometimes called subordinates, are important
to your story. They are the hero's (or villain's) helpers, but they are not as vital as the hero or the villain. It is these
supporting characters who hear the hero's ideas, counsel him, argue with
him, warn him, pick him up if he starts to fall and treat him if he's injured. They
should have backgrounds and descriptions, but not as detailed as those of the hero.
The chief supporter might be a sidekick, a buddy. Think of Holmes and Watson, Cisco and Pancho, The Lone Ranger and
Tonto, or Batman and Robin.
You've determined that this is Eric's story
because he has the most to lose if he doesn't reach his brother in time. Keep
the frisky supporters in Eric's shadow, but if one of them turns out to be a real scene-stealer, you're lucky. You've got a ready-made hero for your next story.
Walk-ons have a smaller role
and are only seen once or twice. They are part of the wallpaper in the background.
The reader doesn't care about them, and it isn't necessary to name them. A walk-on is the boy who was cleaning the stable
when the prince brought in his horse, or the tavern wench who served his wine. Walk-ons
need to be described, but not in detail. Referring to the redheaded
boy of about twelve, or the buxom wench with the torn right sleeve tells as much as the reader cares to know.
Your hero is your viewpoint character,
and the story revolves around him. It’s his story!
© Norma Howell 2007
Norma Howell lives in California, USA. She was a professional secretary for forty years, writing procedure manuals and managing the
medical staff office in a community hospital and the adjacent clinic. Before that she was assistant editor of a school
newspaper. Now in retirement, she devotes her time to writing both fiction and non-fiction.
UP FROM DOWN UNDER is edited by Les Stephenson, New South Wales, Australia.
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