The Starring Character For A Series
Part 1 - The 3/4 Point Pivot Part 1 - The Worm Turns
Part 2 - Finding Your Opening Scene posted September 15, 2020
This is Part 3 of Plot-Character Integration. The Starring Character For A Series
You'd think finding the opening scene should come AFTER designing your Starring Character, and BEFORE finding the epiphany moment in the Character's life where Events (Plot) trigger (not force) the Character to change his/her life's vector. In truth, Creativity just doesn't work in logical order, and most often the Vector Impelling Moment pops into the writer's mind first, then maybe the writer backtracks to the Opening Scene (which we will look at next week on this Blog) and from the opening scene where the conflict is sketched in and the Life Vector shifting scene, the writer pursues a definition of the Character.
Beginning writers often make the mistake of not polishing (rewriting like crazy) these 3 moments or elements until they are one, inextricable, interlinked, fully integrated thing - a Starring Character. In a well written book, no reader who isn't also a writer will see the separate elements that go into building a Starring Character. Readers only see a Person walking a life-path, and love the book if they recognize a few bits of verisimilitude and much more to be curious about.
When you walk and chew gum, you are "integrating" two actions. When you plot a novel, you are doing one action, and when you create the Characters (or depict the Characters) you are doing another action. When you "integrate" these two actions, the reader (even accomplished English professors) can't tell the difference between Plot and Character.
That's why, once you've finished a novel, you stumble and dither through trying to describe the novel in a cover letter.
Your dithering tells you that you have, in fact, integrated the Plot into other elements, Character, Theme, Setting, etc.
A cover letter needs to display the PLOT, and do that by tracing the decisions and actions, pro-active actions (not "being forced to") that get his/her fanny caught in the bear trap of the plot.
So the blurb, the pitch, and the cover letter should be written BEFORE picking the opening scene, before creating the Characters, before even "I've got an Idea" -- lay down the plot in terms an editor can identify clearly.
Then rummage through the stockpile of ideas in your subconscious and come up with one that just naturally fits that plot.
The Science Fiction Romance novel is one about the Science of Romance. The bear trap for either Character in the Romance is the Other Character in the Romance -- once two Soul Mates first come in contact (even without physically meeting) - they are each trapped into a plot.
Their efforts to pry their way out of the bear trap are the events of the plot -- the things they do to avoid fate.
The "I love you" moment, or the "I do" moment, (or "why the hell not" moment) ends that struggle to avoid the fate of joining with a Soul Mate.
These Tuesday blog posts are about crafting a convincing argument for the Happily Ever After Ending. The famous HEA is so adamantly disbelieved, a thing that never can happen in "real" life, that those who know it is real, those who are living it, those who intend to live it for themselves, just can't communicate that reality to the disbelievers.
So the Romance writer venturing into Science Fiction has to lull the veteran science fiction reader into suspension of disbelief.
Willing suspension of disbelief.
One powerful tool the science fiction romance writer has for setting up suspension of disbelief is the Character who Stars in the show which is the novel.
The other most powerful tool in the writer's toolbox for delivering the gut-punch of the HEA-as-Reality is the Character who stars in the show.
Character is depicted via Character-Arc. How many events, how much pressure, how much evidence the reader needs in order to believe the thematic statement the Character is making, and the Life Lesson the Character is learning, -- i.e. the Character Arc -- constitutes Pacing. We explored Character Arc and pacing in the Mysteries of Pacing Series, indexed here.
A Starring Character is shown (not told) in the opening scene to "be" at a life-intersection-point akin to what the Target Reader expects to face, is facing, or has recently faced but not yet resolved.
Thus, novels aimed at Teens are generally set in High School or early University - because that's where Teens are in life. (usually -- Science Fiction Hero Characters generally drop out to launch Microsoft, or get swept away from school because their father is the new Ambassador to Mars).
Aiming at the 30-something readership, the writer can choose a Starring Character who has just been fired from a job and is job-hunting. Or in a Regency Romance, left destitute and becoming a governess. That is the starting point, the pivot point in life for many Romance readers who happen to love Science.
Novels need a Starring Character to "Arc" or change his mind about something deeply philosophical because the reader's experience of reality is that "Life" does indeed "Arc" in a ballistic trajectory. Aging has a PATTERN, and everyone who has elders in their life understands that pattern, even while refusing to identify with it.
So for verisimilitude, your Starring Character(s) must Arc, must change internally as external life is impacted by Events that result from their actions. The reader must be able to see the cause-effect chain, the because line, between what the Character does and the Plot Events that happen to him. It has to make sense in some way -- even if the thematic statement is that life is random and nothing makes sense (a valid philosophy).
Poetic Justice reigns in fiction.
So what has the Starring Character's Arc to do with arguing for the HEA?
Life Arcs have different shapes. Some swoop upward in a parabola, then crash straight down. Some are a shallow-angle straight line, steadily upward. Some seem to start on an upward path, then crash way down and never recover, the Star ending up dying homeless. Some gain prominence almost from birth, then steadily maintain huge Public Figure Status despite scandals and losses ( Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis ).
Some Life Arcs have a long-long extended flat top, going up steeply through adventurous youth, then flattening.
The Starring Character of a Long Series of Novels has to be living the long-long flat Arc (either at the top or the bottom of the curve).
The Series we examined in previous posts ...
... show some examples of the flat-arc portion of Character's lives.
Marshall Ryan Maresca avoids the "boring" effect of the flat-arc portion of a life well lived by skipping about among Characters and setting groups of novels among different ensemble casts of Characters, with a long-arc for the government of a large city.
C. J. Cherryh takes her Star of the Foreigner Series from the very steep rising part of his life (being appointed to represent his human people to an alien government), where he has to learn that he wasn't taught everything there is to know about the Aliens, all the way to becoming the steadying hand behind the blending of the governments of the respective peoples because they face an external threat (or two).
Faye Kellerman's Detective Novels display the HEA most prominently - because her Detective character meets his Soul Mate in Book 1 (which won Kellerman awards), then goes on to the business of holding a stressful job (as Homicide Detective in Los Angeles) and keeping a family together, raising kids, and then retiring to an "easy" job with more mystery-mahem-menace than LA ever provided. Yet all the mysteries he solves don't change him in any essential way -- which is very likely due to the steady influence of his wife, his anchor in reality (and often the catalyst plunging him into new mysteries.)
To star in such a long-running series the Character has to attain a solid, steady, disruption-proof, stable point in life, and in life-philosophy. The flat part of the Character Arc is the HEA.
All these series throw searing, explosive, life-shattering bombs at these Starring Characters, and though the Star does feel it, does react to tragedy and danger, the impact doesn't derail his Life. He adjusts his Life to suit the new circumstances and moves right ahead, actually enjoying living.
That is the HEA -- not Happily for Now, but seriously stable to the grave long-lived stability.
It is Stability that your reader doesn't believe in because their own lives are not Stable.
Stable doesn't mean unchanging, or unresponsive, or bored. Stable means having the deep resources to meet every challenge -- but meet that challenge you must. That sort of resource well can be filled to the brim only with a Soul Mate, and usually with children (born, adopted, or students taught - a next generation).
Lives can reach that plateau, that long, level path to the future, with or without a Soul Mate. Level stability doesn't mean Happiness.
Lives can stabilize in a miserable state, in a numb state (consider people from war-torn countries), in depression, or in happiness.
What the modern audience lacks is the sense that stability is possible. This may be in part because of the News of the World flying at us all day from the Web, or in part from the wild ride up the Technology Curve, with every 3 years having to learn whole new software.
The rate of change in this modern world, as Alvin Toffler predicted, stresses the basic human animal brain beyond the ability to adjust. So many people feel blinding, blazing, change whipping this way and that, and have grown up without the feeling of stability that previous generations see as the norm.
Here is an example of a 21 book private detective series upon which so many current series have been based.
It is the Travis McGee Novel series by John D. MacDonald.
This one, The Long Lavender Look, was published #12 in the 21 book series (all of which have a color name in the title). The series is about a third of the total output of John D. MacDonald. I suspect it is the one he is the most famous for.
Here are a quotes from the erudite introduction by Lee Child:
MacDonald, John D.. The Long Lavender Look: A Travis McGee Novel . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
From A Deadly Shade of Gold, a Travis McGee title: “The only thing in the world worth a damn is the strange, touching, pathetic, awesome nobility of the individual human spirit.” From the stand-alone thriller Where Is Janice Gantry?: “Somebody has to be tireless, or the fast-buck operators would asphalt the entire coast, fill every bay, and slay every living thing incapable of carrying a wallet.” These two angles show up everywhere in his novels: the need to—maybe reluctantly, possibly even grumpily—stand up and be counted on behalf of the weak, helpless, and downtrodden, which included people, animals, and what we now call the environment—which was in itself a very early and very prescient concern: Janice Gantry, for instance, predated Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring by a whole year.
McGee is a quiet man, internally bewildered by and raging at what passes for modern progress, externally happy merely to be varnishing the decks of his houseboat and polishing its brass, but always ready to saddle up and ride off in the service of those who need and deserve his help. Again, not the product of the privileged youth enjoyed by the salaried executive’s son. So where did McGee and MacDonald’s other heroes come from? Why Florida? Why the jaundiced concerns? We will never know. But maybe we can work it out, by mining the millions of words written with such haste and urgency and passion between 1945 and 1986.
Go on Amazon and read this whole introduction, even if you remember reading the novels.
Now, consider this:
The Character arc captured in this introduction is relatively static and flat, which is why the series endured for so many decades.
McGee is a Hero who will go out of his comfort zone to save others, but whose inner conflict keeps him spiritually static, just like all good anthology-format TV heroes.
He sees his long-arc life conflict as un-winnable, but is compelled to fight that battle anyway. This is the opposite of Star Trek’s Kirk, who doesn’t see a battle, but rather an adventure to be lived with zest, humor, and joy. McGee has become the archetype drawn on by many writers. Despair seems more realistic than joy to the modern reader.
Note how McGee is seen as bewildered by the lightning pace of change in the world around him. But 1950's to 1980's is seen, today, in retrospect as stable relative to modern change (Zoom swoops in to save the day for work-from-home necessity during Pandemic). Vaccine developed via genetic analysis at a dizzying pace, using tools not even dreamed of in 1970's.
Yet, McGee is the stable Star Character of this series, in a stable part of his life, with his attitude toward life solidly established and unchanging. He responds to each challenge, each case (even in The Long Lavender Look where he, himself, is a suspect in a murder) from that solidly planted, interior orienting point.
Compare McGee to Bren Cameron of C. J. Cherryh's series.
Then contrast with Gini Koch's ALIEN Series -- where the ensemble of Characters rally round the Starring Character with the common intention of creating Stability -- and step by tiny step, they achieve that goal as a team.
If you want to write a Series long enough to convince the modern reader that the HEA is an achievable goal for the shape of the life that they want to live, Show Don't Tell a Starring Character who learns, step by step, one tiny step in each novel, how to stabilize himself and others in a whirlwind of challenges.
The forlorn belief that only the Happily For Now (temporary, not stable) the best one can expect has to be transitioned into the concept that Life can be Stable and not boring!