Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wordcraft -- Character, character, character

I provided a link previously to the late Marion Zimmer Bradley’s explanation of why editors reject stories, but I’m going to break her discussion down into smaller nuggets over the next few weeks.  When I looked at her list of eight specific reasons for rejecting a story, it became obvious that the greatest number of these dealt with the likeability and strength of the characters.

Remember this discussion deals with short stories, rather than the defects of novels discussed in the columns dealing with agent Weronika Janczuk’s workshop.  Although I’ll have to confess that Weronika has since rejected my novel for keeping what she felt was an emotional distance from the characters – again, that pesky character issue.  So I hope working through this will help my writing also, and I appreciate your suggestions.  None of us have to write alone.

Reason number three on Bradley’s list of reasons for rejection was written as, the main character was not identifiable or was not likeable enough for the reader to want to identify him or her, or there were too many characters.  (This actually sounds like three separate reasons to me.  Clearly character is becoming more and more of a concern.)  Reason number four was:  the editor could not get interested enough in the characters to care whether they solved their problems.  And number six was:  the character did not have a serious enough problem or did not solve it by her own efforts.  (Reason number five:  nothing much changed and the characters ended where they started also sounds suspiciously character-related.)

For today, I’m going to deal with what sounds like the simplest of these problems, but obviously isn’t – is the main character identifiable? 

Last fall I mentioned a workshop whose leader urged death to the prologues so many of us used to start our stories.  (September 22, 2010 – Start at the beginning, go to the end, then stop.  The leader was Jessica Wade, associate editor at Ace/Roc books).  Although prologues slow the pace of a story, another of their deficiencies is that they frequently feature someone who is not the main character.  Not necessarily a fatal problem, but always a potential one.  So who is our main character?  Almost inevitably, the one who changes the most.  Or sometimes, for the group Christopher Vogler described as “catalyst heroes” in The Writer’s Journey, figures who bring about transformation in others – especially useful in serial stories.  One way or other, the main character – protagonist or hero – must either undergo significant change or bring about such change in the other characters.  If that doesn't describe your character, maybe you're writing about the wrong person.

For simplicity’s sake, Bradley also suggests limiting the total character cast – in a story of fewer than ten pages, using only a main character, a minor character and perhaps a couple of walk-ons, like the unnamed ticket clerk who annoys your main character and her date.  And watch the names.  I was once in a workshop with a woman who pointed out that I had multiple male characters whose names all started with the letter H.  Ouch!

(Next week:  The likeability factor – bringing extraordinary characters down to earth, or elevating the ordinary Janes and Joes.)

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