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In the absence of Mr. Character

In the absence of Mr. Character…

Who steps in?

We all know the bloke who is most conspicuous by his or her absence. Sometimes this is an event to be celebrated, or not, but what is truly visible (even if only in retrospect) is that they’re not there.

I’m afraid it’s the classic hallmark of amateur pantser (a person who doesn’t pre-plot their books). Now there are some fantastic pantsers out there. There is nothing wrong with it as a writing technique, it can be incredibly successful… as long as you are prepared to back-fill, at need.

These days with word-processing, doing so is easier, and inexcusable to not do. When it was typewriter work, it was serious labor and hassle.

The last couple of novels I’ve read (over the last week – I read fairly fast, and this is my job- to keep immersed. And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) were absolute contrasts.

The first was a ‘first novel’ – supposedly a murder mystery. The author may have had a vague idea of a plot but was definitely an amateur pantser. The central lead character, who introduces us to the story, who sets the scene, who finds the first severed head, from whose point of view we principally see everything at the beginning – gradually fades away in relevance, and isn’t even a dialogue part in the last 30 pages, or even present at the so-called denouement. We never get to find out quite what happens to her, except that having been a passive and rather dim-witted pair of eyes to relate the story through, she isn’t dead. Oh and she might go back to Australia where life was simpler (which she left at 12, but because she came from there, she knew all about horses, and this was just about all there was to her non-entity of a main character… Plainly the author had little idea about Australia or Australians – and thought everyone lived in the outback, including the character’s chemist father. Oh, and we’re all stupid yokels).

The actual murderer we never get to meet until the three-quarter mark, the author plainly having changed her mind and having killed off the character who was being painted as villain-in-chief. The main co-conspirators are also not introduced until this last bit. The author having plainly changed her mind about who the villain was, also changed her mind on the heroes, and a minor character (a Mary-Sue of herself, reading the bio) became the principle point-of-view character.

The second book I read was Heyer’s ‘THE RELUCTANT WIDOW’. Now, I’ve read that often enough to a) know the plot; b) be able to divert myself from enjoying enough to study how she is setting it up. Now, Georgette Heyer is sadly long dead, and we can’t ask if she was a plotter or pantser – but it doesn’t matter –because one is never aware of the absence of Mr. Character. The main POV lead character… remains from start to finish a main POV character. The other characters – including the villains who – to fit with the story line can’t be there in first little bit of the book – start getting mentioned by the fifth chapter, their existence having been foreshadowed before that.

“But, but, but… Not all stories are LIKE that. I mean, uh like epic sagas. Most main characters are dead by chapter 5…”

Methinks thou doth protest too much. Not all stories are alike and the same thing doesn’t work for all of them. Some writers can make almost anything work. There’s just two questions you need to dispassionately ask yourself: 1) is this story that different that it justifies that? 2) Am I sure I’m that good?

If both of those are yes, toss the ‘rules’ (i.e. Things that work almost all the time. There are no actual rules, but just as common sense dictates that if your society is going to work, focus on keeping the 98% happy, not the 2% – if pleasing the 2% means the 98% are going to be irritated.) If not… well, that really cool character that just grew out of necessity in chapter 19 of 25? That became your main POV or villain or love interest by the end, while your main character faded away into obscurity…

You need to fix that. Fortunately, it is very fixable. Yes, it can be hard work (especially if you’re that close to the end). When you look at the structure of a book, if the main character/s aren’t there in the beginning and especially if that main character isn’t there in the end AS A MAIN CHARACTER, you need to take a long hard look at what you have done. Fixing it may be as simple as shifting the main POV character in your start.

If that can’t be done (and that happens for plot reasons) make sure you start fore-shadowing – often and well. And for heaven’s sake have ay least one main character go right through. (Yes. I did this wrong myself, once. Couldn’t sell the book… for good reason.)

Yes, main characters can die – with the appropriate impact and show due to a main character. But demotion is not an option. A main character at the beginning stays a main character or dies.

38 Comments
  1. 23 skidoo

    July 16, 2018
  2. The Reluctant Widow makes a lot of plot hay out of which subordinate characters are present, absent but close, or absent and unreachable. So does The Toll Gate, now that I think about it.

    July 16, 2018
    • Heyer is VERY worth learning from, My problem is always not being so drawn into enjoying the story that I can see the techniques used.

      July 16, 2018
      • I’m very much a back-bencher on the writing front, but what do you think of Cotillion? It strikes me as a very useful plot-thread management exemplar.

        July 18, 2018
        • That’s the book that introduced me to Heyer. You’ve got three principal relationships going—Kitty + her guy + the guy she’s trying to make jealous, Dolph + his gal + Kitty-as-facilitator, and Olivia + Kitty’s cousin + Kitty’s other cousin. Note that each of these relationships has a direct tie back to the main character Kitty, and she’s trying to make them all come right. (Of course, the fact that she’s ignoring her own is part of the humor, but it’s a HEA ending regardless.)

          You could probably graph the plot out with one of those connected-bubble maps, and put Kitty at the center.

          July 18, 2018
          • And, IIRC, her guy solves all of them. (Proving he’s not as dumb as he looks.)

            July 18, 2018
            • Just read it – for some reason, picked it up for free or nearly so. And yes – very nicely plotted, with engaging characters and a nice twist at the end.

              July 18, 2018
            • He’s average INT but a bit higher in WIS. And CHA is quite high too (if you extend it to cover social skills, which seems reasonable.)

              July 18, 2018
  3. I’d say the sadly absent character of the safely-anonymous novel illustrates the difference between _pantsing_ (which in proper form may not see the goal but is definitely in the groove) and _rambling_ .

    Me? Wait, there were supposed to be pants??

    July 16, 2018
    • A really good point. I tend not to outline a plot with characters and movement points, but while I write-with-the-flow (and fix/add foreshadowing later), I still have an idea of who the main characters are, and where the overall arc of the story is going. Sometimes I get surprised by my subconscious—which means going back, adding in bits, trimming out bits, and reworking earlier sections to make the changes work. Even so, there’s still that basic mental framework of “Start here, end there, fill in rest.”

      I don’t like rambling. I really want some kind of trail, or at least cairns.

      July 16, 2018
      • Same here – I usually have a rough plot outline, and a sense of the characters … the rest is just filling in descriptions and conversation.

        July 16, 2018
    • I come up with (hopefully) interesting character(s), then think for a bit on what kind of story that character might wind up in and start writing. Not soon after, my character(s) come to life, beat me up, take my lunch money, and then dictate to ME what the story is going to be. Some of them SUCK at this whole writing thing, so if they don’t end up in a finished story, that’s their own darn fault… not MINE!

      Yes, this isn’t REALLY my process… well… actually it’s not THAT far off.

      Usually, when I get stuck the problem can be boiled down to one or more characters not coming to life in my head, so I can’t figure out what they would do. I haven’t come up with a good method for fixing this yet. I’m trying short stories surrounding each character before writing the main story. Not sure if that will work, but it’s the best idea I have at the moment. I am a little worried that too much character development outside the main story arch might detract from my ability to convey the character to the reader.

      We’ll see.

      July 17, 2018
  4. Heh. I’m browsing through my old writing, and found a “Wow! this isn’t too bad of an Urban Fantasy . . . if only the Very Clearly Signaled Bad Guy hadn’t disappeared utterly leaving the Good Guy and Gal in a purely Man vs Nature series of battles. Halfway through the story.”

    I _think_ I learned to not do that before I published anything.

    July 16, 2018
    • That -could- work if the Obvious Bad Guy turns out to be just a henchman for something so much worse, but you’d have to dispose of him somehow, hopefully in a satisfying and cinematic manner. Such as silver bullet with dragon heart string core from half a mile with a .338 Lapua. And as the legs fall down underneath the cloud of red mist, the magic thingumabob keeps right on going.

      Oops.

      Guess Good Guy and Gal need a bigger gun. Break out the Barret, Martha. ~:D

      July 16, 2018
      • He’s the sort of character who needs to be utterly humiliated. maybe beat up and almost killed several times, and then when the Big Confrontation comes . . . he runs away. I hate to say it, but I may have to get back to work on this story.

        July 16, 2018
        • Sounds better than my idea. I read your comment above and my response aloud here at Chez Phantom, eyes were rolling at the “loving description of the gun…”

          I have a bad reputation. ~:D All I have to do is say “Barret” or “.338” and the eye rolling begins.

          July 16, 2018
    • Pam, I have about 20 books in various stages including finished but not satisfied with… that I keep saying I’ll return to. Yeah. Maybe.

      July 16, 2018
  5. Yeah, I can’t pants on big stuff. On a short story, sure. But on a novel, I need at least a bare bones outline, or I’m going to fizzle out in the middle.

    July 16, 2018
    • g2-56799a4506744a20844ec1aba9f974c4 #

      I’m the other way around. Not that I’ve pantsed every novel, but more and more I pants.
      However in short stories, I need to outline every movement, because it has to be flawless. the shortness magnifies badness. And I’m not a natural short story writer.

      July 16, 2018
      • I’d love to have an outline, but whenever I do the characters all refuse to follow it. “Outlines are for wusses!” they tell me.

        Also I find it a bit tedious when I know what’s going to happen. I like it better when the characters figure it out themselves, and then tell me what happened.

        July 16, 2018
        • I have been known to write it first, then do an outline of how it might have more sensibly progressed, and then see if I can shift the chaos that direction.

          July 16, 2018
          • Sometimes I end up down a rabbit hole, and it starts getting stupid. That usually means I broke something earlier on. Go back, find the broken bit, rip out, re-do. 😦

            July 16, 2018
    • Even with a detailed plot outline I have distinct fizzle points – and one is the middle. ;-/

      July 16, 2018
      • The middle is always so hard. I almost always know the beginning and the ending. But there’s a lot that happens in the middle.

        July 16, 2018
  6. My characters keep meeting new and interesting people. Its a problem, particularly as my MC is a guy who likes to do nothing. Doing nothing is like his Prime Directive. So I end up with all these people running around solving the McGuffin by accident, while the MC smiles and says “See? Doing nothing works!”

    July 16, 2018
    • Nero Wolfe style?

      July 16, 2018
      • Maybe not quite like that. He does get in the odd gunfight. More that he’s a post-human and can model the results of throwing his weight around.

        I have this theory that the more power you have, the less stuff you can do without breaking something. Therefore, a guy who can do -anything- is almost always stuck doing nothing, and waiting for the situation to resolve by “natural forces”.

        Saves me having to introduce kryptonite into the story. ~:D

        July 16, 2018
        • “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”

          my favorite Winnie-the-pooh quote.

          July 17, 2018
        • mrsizer #

          That’s a really interesting perspective. But think of the frustration! I _could_ just jump in and deal with this, but it will have all sorts of negative second and third order effects; I’ll just let you deal with it. -time passes- No! Not that way!

          July 17, 2018
          • I’ll try to comment on this again.
            The conundrum my MC faces is the familiar curse of unintended consequences. Even us plain humans know you can’t do -one- thing. This guy is some kid who works at the parts counter at NAPA. He has virtually unlimited power dropped on him. One of those powers it to model consequences to a fine degree. He KNOWS what’s going to happen.

            I use the example of child trafficking in the book. It was the worst thing I could come up with that I was willing to write down. The mere mention of it is sufficient to legitimize a gunfight or other fictional mayhem in an adventure book.

            Our hero discovers that while cleaning up individual instances of it only get him in trouble with the local authorities and the local mob, stamping out the trade globally comes with a very steep price tag. Something that big and that lucrative doesn’t go down without a fight.

            Of course his real problem is aliens are going to dismantle the solar system, the trafficking thing is like a hangnail compared to brain cancer.

            July 18, 2018
  7. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Judging from personal experience, the absence of character is usually filled by politics. 😉

    July 16, 2018
  8. Mary #

    Cutting down the number of point of view characters helps maintain focus.

    July 17, 2018
  9. On a tangent for you pros: Honestly, is a character arc really necessary?

    July 18, 2018
    • Jamie #

      Well I’ve generally heard of three kinds:

      1) a positive arc, where a character goes from “zero to hero,” — note that this is not restricted to superhero origin stories, it could just be a character who undergoes change in a good way. If your protagonist is bullied at the beginning of the story, he learns to stand up for himself in the end.

      2) a flat arc where a character doesn’t change, but the character changes the status quo. Poirot bringing killers to justice changes the status quo. Poirot himself generally remains the same. Indiana Jones remains the same from beginning to end.

      3) a negative arc, where a character goes from hero to zero. Pick any random Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.

      All three are perfectly valid arcs. And it’s not unusual for the second arc to use the first or third as subplots, e.g., Alan Grant in “Jurassic Park” ends up deciding kids aren’t so bad after all. Not integral to the plot, but a nice note to end the movie on.

      July 18, 2018
      • Okay… This is the one that has me stumped: How is #2 a “character” arc? What am I missing?

        July 19, 2018
        • Jamie #

          The “arc” is a character’s relationship to the plot. Does the character have to change himself (for better or worse) in order for the plot to happen, or to accomplish something in the plot? Then it’s a change arc, 1 or 3, because the character must overcome or succumb to internal obstacles. Without that change, there’s no story. If the wimpy kid never learns to stand up for himself then there’s no story. If Oedipus didn’t have pride and anger management issues there’d be no story.

          A flat arc protagonist doesn’t need to change *himself* in order to affect the plot. He is instead changing the *situation* as it currently exists: Poirot doesn’t need to learn that murder is bad in order to solve the mystery. He already knows. His arc involves using his skills and wits to overcome external obstacles as he makes changes to the status quo: the discovery of clues, eliciting of confessions, sniffing out his quarry, etc. If he were uninterested in doing these things then there’s no story.

          Characters such as Poirot may find their *skills* tested, or their resolve tested, and have to “bring their A game,” when up against a particularly fiendish foe. But they already have an A game to bring; the story is not about their acquiring one (as in a positive arc) or squandering one (a negative arc).

          July 19, 2018
          • So… if I understand you, character arc covers the how the character, or the story, is changed, either positively or negatively by the story universe. That’s makes sense. Thanks.

            July 20, 2018
  10. Too headachy to say much but … that image is bloody nightmarishly creepy, Dave.

    July 18, 2018

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