Structuring a novel Part 2: Characters in Conflict

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Structuring the Novel: Make It or Break It (pages 3-20)

Lesson 2

Recap: Within the first 15 pages of your novel, you need to set the hook, give readers a reason to read your book, and set the theme. Don’t leave your readers in the dark. The theme may be subtle and stated in an off-hand or oblique manner, but readers want to know early the basic and underlying thesis of the storyline. Your story can run off into a lot of directions, spurred by a lot of fascinating characters, but, throughout the work, you must remain steadfast and faithful to the theme.

Now comes the set up, which may be the most critical pages in the novel. Those first fifty pages can make or break the book. It’s important to take the time necessary to grab, intrigue, and perhaps even mystify or frighten the reader. The legendary literary agent, Al Zuckerman, once said that in order to write the blockbuster novel,  you need to come up with a scenario whereby two or three central characters are engaged in a life or death struggle to overcome a massive problem, the bigger the better.

In a romance, someone meets Mr. or Mrs. Right. The odds may be long and virtually impossible for them to ever make a connection. The schism that exists between their lives, miles, and even cultures can be wide and devoid of any foreseeable bridge. But the reader suddenly has someone to root for. Don’t let her get away regardless of how far she runs.

In a mystery, someone dies or is threatened or is robbed or is kidnapped. The plot thickens with the twist of a word or a paragraph or a passage of dialogue. And the story is off and running, picking up steam with every turn of the page.

In a political thriller, terrorists bomb the entrance to a subway tunnel, planes slam into a tall tower, a Brink’s truck loaded with explosives is driven into the middle of Wall Street, the Queen of England is missing, the Czar of Russia is found, and he’s dead.

In a fantasy, the Knight of the Kingdom of Light is severely injured and rescued by a troll who alone knows the mysterious and secret passageways to the fortress of the villainous forces determined to destroy the castle of the Knight’s dying father.

The story is set up. The plot is established.

But one thing is missing: the characters, and nothing is as important as an assortment of unforgettable characters.

Within those first fifty pages you should introduce the hero or heroine, as well as every primary character in the story.  Don’t wait until page two hundred and forty for a key player to suddenly appear. He doesn’t have to show up in the first fifty pages, but his or her name and reputation should be mentioned. Readers should be aware of his or her existence. It’s like the classic old Westerns. When the lone gunfighter rides into town just before the bad guys come to burn the place down, the readers know he is coming and feel much better when he dismounts and checks his Colt .45. When such a character does step into a scene, it should not come as a surprise. He or she should be expected.

Those key characters need to be flawed.  No one is perfect. I was speaking at a writer’s conference, and one of the authors said she had not been able to find any flaws or weaknesses in her hero. My answer was simple. “Then you don’t have a hero,” I said. “You don’t even have a character.”

In these first fifty pages, we learn what makes the characters tick. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What secrets do they possess? What is the guilt that has saddled them? What are the sins of their past? Even the good guys have been shaped by the bad in their lives. Unless a character is flawed, he or she can’t change. If the character can’t change, then he or she is of no interest. When a reader loses interest, the novel is over, it’s finished, it’s forgotten, and it will never be recommended to anyone else.

In my Golgotha Connection, I introduced my main character this way: St. Aubin’s memory programmed everything he saw and heard. Nothing escaped him. Graveyards were full of men who ignored or overlooked the things, no matter how insignificant, that could get them killed. Yet the computer that was his memory had blown a circuit five years earlier, the night he awoke in a churchyard outside the battle-scarred, charcoal ruins of a crumbling little town in Kosovo, lying barefoot and numb in the freshly fallen snow, a forty-five slug embedded along the shattered edge of his left rib cage.  How long ago had it been? Ten months? Ten years? A lifetime? Whose lifetime was it?

His left arm had been broken in three places. He possessed no wallet, no papers, no passport, no name, no memory, no past. All of his yesterdays had become as vacant as the churchyard, his mind as pitch black as the night around him. In his coat pocket, wet from melting snow, he had found an empty matchbox from the St. Aubin Hotel. No key. No address. Only a matchbox.

In Last One Chosen, Stephen Woodfin defined Joshua Issacharoff this way: Josh had come to town about twenty years ago and set up an air conditioning and heating repair business.  It was as if he had gone the virgin birth one better, having neither father nor mother.  No one knew of any connection he had to the community and he kept to himself except when called on to do a job. He had a strange religiosity.  One Sunday would find him at the First Baptist, the next with the Black brethren at the Christian Methodist Episcopal church.  A local Jewish merchant said he always invited Josh for the Seder meal and folks around town swore they had heard him talking Arabic gibberish with the proprietors of the Quik Stop.

He had a strange aroma about him, like incense made from green hickory nutshells, a bittersweet fragrance like the hovering souls of lost loved ones.Not long after he came to town he started picking up strays. Not animals, people.  Fearless in his acceptance of others, he had the ability to rehabilitate and heal.  Dozens of kids whose parents had turned them out found their way to his door.  Single mothers scarred by spousal abuse sought refuge under his roof.  Churches sent him their culls, the folks not deserving of grace.  There were times when he fed ten people at his table.

These characters are not normal. There are deep-seated mysteries attached to their lives. People will not understand them. Whatever is wrong with them may be self-inflicted, and, then again, they may be victims of abuses that neither are able to comprehend.

Now, you as the author will spend the next three hundred pages or more trying to probe the past, unravel the puzzle, explore the mystery, and figure it all out. Just remember this: No one has empathy for a perfect hero, who beomes little more than a one-dimensional cartoon character. If a hero does have flaws and overcomes them, he is special. If a hero has flaws and can not over come them, readers want to comfort and protect him. Either way, the character has worked his or her way into their hearts and minds.

It is important for readers to view the world you have created and the characters who inhabit your imaginary world. Then, and only then, can the adventure really begin.

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  • Darlene Jones

    Whatever the genre, the stories need to have piqued our interest right from the beginning or we won’t keep reading.

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