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.