Character introduction is always there on the challenge scale. How much/little detail do you give? How do you make it easy for the reader to connect with them? How do you make them seem like real people? And so on, and so forth. All these questions are covered often and variously, and I’m sure I’ll revisit them in more depth. But here’s one that isn’t raised so much: where in the story is the cut-off point for introducing new characters?
The thing is, sometimes your protagonist ends up in a situation that they can’t solve by themselves. That’s good and as it should be – no one wants to read about the perfect, self-sufficient character unless he’s called MacGyver and played by a young Richard Dean Anderson. But if they need outside assistance towards the end of the book (which is perfectly possible because that’s where the stakes get raised) then you risk the introduction of a new character looking like a deus ex move.
Brief précis for those who haven’t heard the term, and to flex my much-ignored classicist muscles: the term ‘deus ex machina‘ originally comes from ancient Greek theatre (despite the phrase being Latin), where an actor playing a god would literally descend from above the stage in a crane in order to solve the problems of the plot. Or lightning-bolt someone – it was a toss up. The Roman poet Horace specifically advised against using this device ‘unless a difficulty worthy of a god’s unravelling should happen’. Basically, don’t do it. It’s generally seen as a lack of creativity on the writer’s part, and leaves the audience feeling cheated. I cite the great eagles in Lord of the Rings as a prime example, although Tolkein called them a eucatastrophe rather than a deus ex. He made up that word, though, so I’m not sure I buy it.
JRR couldn’t be bothered to write the walk home.
So is there a cut-off point in the story, beyond which you can’t introduce new characters? Or does it just boil down to the manner of their introduction? I’ve just finished reading Terry Pratchett’s latest, Raising Steam. On page 319 out of 370 he introduces a new character who sticks around for a couple of pages, long enough to remove an obstacle that didn’t have to be there in the first place. It felt enough like padding to jar me out of immersion – and I’m a big Pratchett fan. If he can’t do it, can anyone?
The reason I ask is because a new character turns up in Corpus about four fifths of the way through the book. She’s there to serve multiple purposes, none of which are truly world-saving but all of which are important. During beta testing, though, her appearance was picked up on as ‘cursory’. Now, it’s perfectly possible that I just need to do some work on developing the scenes, but it made me wonder whether late character arrivals were ever wholly successful.
Can anyone think of a good example?
I’ve got the first few chapters of Corpus back from the raptor with notes and, as usual, it’s covered with the notation ‘P.D.’. P.D. – Physical Description – my personal weakness. I see what’s going on, accept it as the default setting, and then only describe highlights. I tend to forget that the reader isn’t a clairvoyant and can’t see inside my brain to the pictures there – they need to be described on the page. This mainly refers to landscape (“I know this town has cobbles, but that’s it.”) and body language. Where people are standing, what they look like, physical beats that show they’re tense or happy rather than just telling the reader.
The landscape fix is easy – I just need to go back and say what it looks like. But body language is way more subtle, especially if you want to avoid clichés. What to people do if they’re angry, for example, other than clench their fists? Well, there’s a very useful and detailed book called What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro which I highly recommend. But there’s also the invaluable skill of people-watching. Sitting in a cafe in a busy shopping centre will get you all sorts of insights. It’s rarely good for actual conflict, though, and I’ve been called out for staring in the past which was a little embarrassing.
The risk-free version of this, which the raptor suggested, was to watch a film on mute. You tend to get rather more exaggerated body language on celluloid, but that’s fine. See if you can work out what’s going on without any verbal clues. What gives away the emotions and inner monologue? What are the tell-tale signs of lying, or distress, or gearing up to confrontation? We all know body language on an instinctive level – not just what to do but also how to read it. It’s a survival trait. The trick is to translate that into conscious knowledge and then describe it in a way your audience will naturally understand.
I ❤ Ursula
The raptor recently linked me to a blog post by Joe Abercrombie about his editing process, in which he makes a very good point indeed:
Making changes is always a bit tricky. Although you made all this stuff up, and can make any change you like, I find I get into a mindset of, ‘I can’t change that, that’s what happened.’
I have this exact problem on a regular basis. The events of the story are facts, set in stone, despite their origin in my imagination. Making the leap back to ‘it’s all in your head’ can be surprisingly difficult, but that flexibility is an essential part of the editing process.
The problem, I think, is one of belief. In order to write the story with passion, I have to believe in it on some level. Also, if the characters or events aren’t believable then you’ll lose your audience, right? So once you’ve crafted this story, and these people, how do you change them? It sounds dead simple – it’s just squiggles on a page, after all – but there’s quite a psychological hurdle to jump. You have to break some level of belief.
Of course, once you’ve accepted that the change is necessary then it’s just a question of mental effort. The trouble comes when belief in the story as it stands stops you from seeing where change is needed. This is where beta readers come in. All hail the mighty beta reader!
If you’re expecting a tip or solution, by the way, then don’t. I said at the top that this is a regular issue for me. As far as I can see, it boils down to a choice: either you carry on believing in the original version and ignore your beta readers, or you take a deep breath and have to break something.
I’ve been playing about with various incarnations of Animus for a while now, and have changed both the narrator and the start-point of the story several times. Every time I think I’ve cracked it, and then I realise that either there’s a better way to do it or this new version doesn’t cover an important element or the previous version was just plain better. It’s not unusual for me to have a couple of casts at the start of a project before finding the right one, but Animus is now breaking my personal best on that score. I’ve managed to narrow it down to three options and would now like to outsource opinion. If you’re interested, please take a look at the options below and let me know what you think.
OPTION 1: Sabine – A slave girl who comes to dictate the course of a war through emotional manipulation of her master, the warlord Leukus.
OPTION 2: Leukus – The warlord who pushes his friend and king, Hematus, into a conflict that will ultimately destroy the nation.
OPTION 3: Tatiana – A skilled mind-reader who, after the war, has taken Leukus captive and wants to learn why he did what he did, whilst her own people try to recover from the conflict.
The challenge is that Animus is both a sequel and an explanation. The initial idea – as shown in Sabine and Leukus’ versions – is to tell the war in Spiritus from the other side. Why the Court of Blood started a war in the first place, and what it meant to them when they lost. The third idea – Tatiana’s version – is to try and get some of that, whilst at the same time showing what the aftermath of the war was for the victors (thus setting up the new world order that is the setting for the final book, Corpus). Is that option trying to do too much, or is it important to have the juxtaposition of before and after? Is it more interesting to have the same historical events from a new perspective, or does that not give enough new story to the reader?
Bearing in mind that these are all rough drafts, which of the three opening snippets would make you interested in reading the rest of the story? Would any of them?
I spent a little while last night tidying up the Stories page, clearing out old content and listing the new. The outline of the entire Trinity Theory series is now up, with excerpts from Spiritus and Animus (although not much from the latter as I’ve only just started writing it). There is also the complete short story, entitled Regulus, which canonically fits pretty much in the middle of Spiritus but gives away absolutely nothing about the novel’s story or ending. It’s just a snapshot of what’s going on in the life of the eldest Cirrus sibling, written because beta reader 2forjoy was feeling sorry for him.
Writing Regulus was a challenge in several ways, and I was relatively happy with the way I tackled most of them. Short stories are not my forte and I enjoyed the challenge of working within a much smaller environment, although I doubt I’ll be making a regular thing of it. It wasn’t until afterwards, however, that I realised I hadn’t taken into account the issue I talked about earlier this week – catering for an audience that doesn’t already know the setting. Hopefully it isn’t too opaque to enjoy on its own merits, but it will mean more to anyone who’s read the novel. A useful lesson when writing the beginning of Animus.
Anyway, it’s there if you’re interested. A love story hidden in a Roman noire pastiche. Both new formats for me, both fun to write and – I hope – fun to read. Happy Friday. 🙂
One read-through done, with some inconsistencies caught, a couple of over-enthusiastic edits reined in and a few names changed. Now weighing in at a healthy 91k words and change. I’ve learned a huge amount about writing, structure and characterisation during the course of this book. If I were to start it again from scratch, I’d do some things very differently. The next one will be better, but I still have faith in Spiritus as it stands. So look out, Harper Voyager, here we come!
In other news, work on Corpus has been bumped down the list. One of my beta readers, the lovely 2forjoy, has put in a highly flattering request – a short story for her favourite character (one of the supporting cast). In true fae fashion, I see this partly as repayment of a debt. After all, she drew me some original artwork for Spiritus. So I shall be trying my hand at a short story for the first time. How wrong can it go?!
Awesome word, huh? The only one from the very brief bit of Ancient Greek I studied that ever stuck. It’s the Classical expression of perfection in a person, and literally translates as ‘the beautiful and the good’. What they meant by that, beyond basic aesthetic attractiveness, was balance of skills and taste. Specifically, ‘nothing to excess’ – a phrase carved into the temple wall at Delphi, along with ‘know thyself’.
Good advice. Occasionally hard to follow, and I don’t just mean finishing off the bag of Maltesers by yourself. (Yes, you did, I found the packet.) I’ve been struggling to find balance and achieve perfection in two writing-related things lately. The first is in reading advice – there is TONS of advice on style, structure, subject, characterisation, grammar, dialogue and every other possible aspect of writing available in books, podcasts and blogs. You can read it until the cows come home and still make barely a dent. Some of it is actively helpful; some of it is just personal opinion (any advice I offer on this blog falls solidly into this category); some of it downright discouraging. Since approaching writing in a rather more structured way this year, the amount of time I’ve spent reading advice has upped considerably. I have no doubt that it’s improved my all-around knowledge of storytelling, but there comes a time when you have to stop and trust your own instincts. When is that time? When do you strike that balance? Good question – ask me another.
Okay… the next question, then, is when do you stop editing? Yeah, that’s a tricky one too. You can play with your manuscript forever, tweaking a word here and an ellipsis there. At what point do you say ‘It’s finished’ and walk away? No idea, but the temptation is there for me at the moment. Do I fight it and keep on going, or is Spiritus as good as it’s going to get? There’s another element of balance to think about, too – I’ve had some feedback from my betas on the edits that I made in the first round, and the feeling is that I’ve gone too far the other way. By adding explicit emotional reactions and thought processes, I have lost some of the spartan cleanliness of the lines and the opportunity for the reader to draw conclusions.
Now, given that I’m only on my second round of editing I’m pretty sure we ain’t done yet. The Harper Voyager deadline will almost certainly be the deciding factor on this one. In fact, given that they opened their doors today, I should probably be editing right now instead of blogging. Catch you later!