By Sarah Hoyt
(And yes, of course, you can go back and start the workshop now — first post last week — and send me the exercise together with this week’s. We’re very informal here.)
A Matter Of Character
When I was a wee young writer, knee high to a manuscript, Kris Rusch told me never to open a story with a character crying. Now, I know a lot of you will feel compelled to do just that, because you read it here.
Yes, you can do it, but you have to know what to do it, and Kris was absolutely RIGHT on why not to do it. (And in a way on how to do it.)
I know the temptation. For one, you’re told open with a problem, right? So you think “I’ll pile problems on my character.” For another… Well, if you’re a normal human being – and some of us are … more or less – you feel a strong impulse to help the suffering. So, judging from yourself, you extrapolate that if someone is in trouble bad, the reader will be hooked.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and oh, yeah, wrong. What you’re not taking in account is WHEN to do this. Look, go read the beginning of the first Harry Potter. Does she open with him living under the stairs and getting a used sock for Christmas? No. That is how she keeps it going once she’s hooked you – yes, sob stories work. Harry Potter is a legitimate child of Jane Eyre – but she opens with the mysterious happenings, FIRST. And she has something pretty interesting happen to Harry, along with the mistreatment.
Look, I’ll use Kris’ example, because it’s the best way of explaining it I’ve ever come across. For the purposes of hooking the reader, the character is a stranger who JUST rang your doorbell. So, you open the door and there is someone – a total stranger – dissolving in tears. “My boyfriend left me, I lost my job, I’m the most unfortunate person in the world.”
What are you going to do? You’re going to shut the door in their faces, that’s what. Why? Because instinctively we assume strangers sobbing all over us are not quite right in the head. Also, we protect ourselves by not wanting to get involved in a stranger’s misfortunes.
Now, suppose you open the door and this person has a legitimate purpose (the legitimate purpose of a book character is to entertain you, but suppose it’s someone at the door) like perhaps talk to you about the local elections. You invite them in and talk for a while, and you have tea or whatever. And then, about an hour in, when you feel like this person is an acquaintance (Humor me.) they tell you they’re only doing this because their boyfriend/girlfriend left them, and their dog died, and they were laid off. If the person is even mildly credible, then you’ll feel a lot more like helping them.
Understand, it’s not that your character shouldn’t have problems – problems are essential to move the plot forward. It’s how you tell them. Go to Amazon and look at the free pages of Evanovich “One For the Money.” – when the series opens, Stephanie Plum was just laid off. She’s divorced after finding her husband doing the dirty with her then best friend on her dining room table. The love of her life is wanted for murder. But how does it open? Does she sob all over you? No. By the time you realize how much trouble she’s in, you’re hooked by her breezy, cheeky style.
It’s also perfectly possible to start with a character in deep trouble in a serious style and NOT put readers off, by adopting the stoic, off hand style. I’m sorry for using my own work as an example but… ah… you can’t buy it yet, anyway. And while it’s not the best of its kind, I’m too lazy to go look for another example right now. (And yes, I’ll send your critiques momentarily. I want to go over them again. This week was fraught with health issues and this is the first time I’ve been AWAKE.)
I open A Few Good Men in the head of a character who has been imprisoned for fifteen years, in horrible conditions, through no fault of his own. I could open with him crying and telling you how unfortunate he was – and watch you run away. Instead I open with a problem: his cell will soon be under water because of a break in the prison wall. In the course of getting out and rescuing other prisoners, he off-handedly gives you his story, a comment here, a comment there, very matter of fact – like, the only reason he’s still sane is that someone has slipped him data gems and a gem reader. Or that he killed his best friend years ago (and you sort of get under suspicious circumstances.) Or that he’s attempted suicide several times.
It is the off-hand nature of the comments, while he’s busy doing other stuff that needs to be done that hooks – I think. It’s mine, so it’s hard to tell.
This of course, brings us to another comment of Kris’ “Your character shouldn’t cry/feel sorry for himself/herself. That way the reader has to.”
And why is this disquisition on characters in a post about hooking the reader? Because sooner or later, ultimately, a story is about a character. And if we’re not interested in your character, we won’t read the story.
For your “homework” – and yes, you can do the other two late! – write me a page or two of your character’s introduction. Remember, your character DOESN’T have to be emotionally wounded or in jeopardy to be interesting. We kind of like superhuman heros, too. Of course, if you can combine the two, you have sheer gold. But your character does need to have an immediate problem and to be interesting.
So, go write. And then send it to me – email@example.com
(And again, sorry to be late on critiques. You’ll get them in the course of today. I caught the stupid stomach flu going around, which resulted in no sleep. Which in turn resulted in… not thinking clearly. I’d rather go over things again.)
I would have thought the opening of DST was an excellent example of the principle you’re putting forth here. A girl realizing there’s an unwelcome presence in her bedroom is a problem that everyone in the audience can relate to, and one that’s *present* and compelling, without the character being whiny in the least. And then as the next few paragraphs begin to reveal perhaps the least-whiny psyche in the Universe, we’re dragged head-over-heels into the story in no time.