Last night I finally got my files uploaded for the print version. They’ve been reviewed, and I had a problem with my title page, so I have to get that fixed this morning, and then upload the interior file again. But it seems like that was the only issue, so I might be able to order a proof copy tonight.
This morning I’m doing some thinking about first acts, how I understand them, and how I approach them. What follows may be a lot of me talking to myself, so don’t let all the yous get to you.
For me, the first part of a book is all setup. The actual story, the thing your characters are going to have to work through—you’re not into that yet. In fact, the point where you actually get into that doesn’t even happen until the end of this section.
Now, you can’t just do nothing here. You can’t just go about describing the characters, their environs, their backstories, etc, and not having anything going on to engage the reader. That’s about as much fun as watching someone else play Barbies. There should be something going on, something the reader is going to want to know more about.
So you’ve got a character (or characters) and a something going on. And part of what the reader wants to know is: how is this something going to affect the character? When is she going to a) either become aware of what’s really going on, and/or b) have to deal with this? And then what’s going to happen? While she’s reading on, to get to that moment when things come together and you come to that point of shoving your character through the door into the story world, you’re feeding her lots of important information about the world and the people in it, you’re planting seeds, doing a little foreshadowing, but, most importantly to me, you’re setting up your character arc.
The stories I love best are those in which a character learns and grows, is changed by the events of the story. I think I probably especially love characters who seem a little hard to love when they’re first introduced.
Take Lost’s Sawyer as an example. (Oh, I’d like to.) He’s not a nice man. In fact, he’s a criminal. Not only is he nasty to everyone on the island with the name-calling and the constant lashing out, he also does things like gathering up and “claiming” as many supplies as he can so that he can profit from everyone’s plight. I think there’s a part of Sawyer that remains inherently selfish at the core, which keeps his character consistent. But in a show in which the challenges presented by the island transform many characters, helping them find the inner hero that may lie within all of us, I think Sawyer is the one whose change is the most dramatic, and therefore the most moving. (Or I could be just blinded by the dimple. It happens.)
Spike is another example of this kind of character. Someone who starts off really enjoying the killing, especially of slayers. Until he falls in love with one, and is changed by that love, and by his story into someone who ultimately—does something spoilery that’s pretty selfless. You know what I’m talking about.
So yeah, I guess I’m into that. Characters need to have a starting off point in which they are somehow less that they’re going to be at the end point. And in a series, in which they’re going to appear in more than one story, that means they’ll need even more room to grow.
They have got to be likable in some way, and often, with flawed characters, that’s a matter of empathy. When a reader talks about characters that seem real, what they’re saying is that they felt empathy, they recognized something that they’ve felt, or at least something that they understand, in something that your character feels. There has to be something they connect to. This is why they tell us to make the character care about something.
Spike had Drusilla, for example, showing that he was capable of some kind of love, even if it wasn’t the nicest relationship to watch. Later, he formed the same kind of obsessive attachment to Buffy. And we really got to see how it hurt him, to be so constantly rejected by her, to feel that she was so unattainable, because he was so unworthy. To feel the hopelessness of that obsession, even if one hasn’t been a vampire obsessed with a slayer who won’t have them–a lot of people can still relate to, and be moved by, those kinds of feelings. And that’s what keeps them tied to Spike as he waits for his moment, his opportunities for growth (internal, not always conscious), and to win the Slayer’s affections (external).
But be advised, it doesn’t work for all readers all the time. If you present flawed characters, not everyone is going to connect, empathize, or wait around for them to get better. Sometimes a reader will be so turned off by something your flawed character did or said that, not only will she give up on them, but the book, and you as an author. Our different tastes, experiences, the issues that can pull us in or make us throw the book at the wall, that’s all part of what it is to be human and sentient, and makes all these varied stories possible.
After all, it’s this variation in taste that makes possible questions like:
- Angel or Spike?
- Sawyer/Kate or Sawyer/Juliette?
- Marvel or DC?
- Ginger or Maryann?
And where would the internet be without that?