Surviving “The End”: advice for literary characters (part 1)
“Welcome to this afternoon’s lecture at Fictional Character University. Just to make sure you are all in the right session, everyone here is appearing in their first novels, right?”
“Do short stories count?”
“No. While short stories are an excellent medium, it’s really not the same as a novel. How many of you have appeared in a short story? More than one story? Look like about 25%…I’ll make sure to address those differences, then. If you have any additional questions, you can e-mail me after class.
Let’s go ahead and get started. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Thackeray Carlson, but I’m usually called ‘Tack Carlson’. I’ve been featured in twenty-three novels, one hundred and four short stories, a comic book, movies, and a TV series that I guarantee you none of you saw.
I’m the son of a freed Caribbean slave and a disgraced British diplomat.
My nickname comes from two things.
One is my expertise in caring for horses. I’m guessing some of you haven’t spent much time around a barn…’tack’ is what we call the equipment we use with our horses…saddles, bridles, reins, or as my horse Seafounder would call it, ‘The original wearable technology.’
The other one is that it’s short for ‘Tactic’. While I’ve done my share of fighting in my adventures, both hand to hand and with weapons, it really comes from legal tactics. Yep, I’m a lawyer. Oh, that’s another name you might know: I’m called the ‘Courtroom Cowboy’, even though the closest I usually get to an actual cow is on a supper plate.
My first publication was as a minor character in a Dusty Ambush short story in Thrilling Western. My author is Buck Tooson…or to use her given name, Mary Prydudd.
That was in 1936.
After a bunch of short stories and a couple of anthologies, I hit the big time with The Courtroom Cowboy #1: The Sagefire Case.
Now, if I’d been like most characters, that would have been it. No reason to expect I’d survive that first novel and get on to a next.
But I did.
Then I did it again…and again…and again.
Eventually, I even outlived Mary…uh, Buck.
Yep, some of you might be worried about what will happen when your author dies, but that doesn’t have be the end of it. I’ve had six different authors over the years…and that’s just talking about the books.
The odds are, you are going to meet your end way before your author does.
Now, I’m not trying to scare you…just being realistic.
There are things you can do to give you a better shot at book number two…and that’s why we’re here today.
Plenty of folks have made it over the years, of course: Sherlock Holmes; Dracula; Nancy Drew…heck, even H.G. Wells’ Time Traveler has been in more than one book, and if you’ve read the first one, that might be a surprise.
Let’s get started
Rule #1: You have to accept change.
That’s one of those differences between a novel and a short story. All you short story vets out there: it’s possible you are exactly the same as you were in the first one. You come in and solve the case, or get the guy, or whatever. You are completely comfortable and predictable.
In a novel, it can’t be the same. I’m assuming here that you are the star of it, not just a background character. You’ve got too be different at the end of the book than you were at the beginning.”
“Tack is fine…of course, if you want to call me ‘esteemed counsel’ or ‘pardnuh’, I’m okay with either.”
“Yes, sir. I never thought Sherlock Holmes changed much…that was one of the things I admired about the character. He knew who he was from the beginning.”
“Holmes is a great example of my point. What happens in the first book…if we leave out the case itself? Holmes moves in with Watson. That is an absolutely life changing event for Holmes. Part of the joy of the book is seeing Holmes and to a lesser extent, Watson, adjusting to that situation, and each other.”
“Tack, what about Dracula?”
“Another great example. Don’t get confused by the movies, where they act like the evil count has been around since the beginning. It’s pretty clear Dracula hasn’t been revived for all that long in the first book, but let me ask you: what’s the other big change?”
“Van Helsing’s arrival?”
“Sure, having an enemy can be a good thing…readers love a good bad guy! I was thinking of something different, though. We see the book through Jonathan Harker’s eyes, at least originally. Anybody know what he does for a living?”
“He’s a lawyer, right?”
“Good enough. He’s there to help with a real estate transaction…the Count is moving. What’s more stressful than moving? For Dracula,, it’s a fate worse than death…literally.
That’s something to think about. Stress makes you an interesting character. The best way for readers to see who you are is when you are pushed out of your comfort zone. They also have their own challenges, and they’ll be sympathetic to you. If you get through it, they’ll admire you.
Nobody wants to read about somebody whose life is perfect and static.
Do any of you know the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory? No? This link will be in your reference materials:
It doesn’t have a connection to Sherlock, as far as I know, but it’s a list of the most stressful life events.
This slide has the top ten:
1. Death of spouse
3. Marital separation from mate
4. Detention in jail or other institution
5. Death of a close family member
6. Major personal injury or illness
8. Being fired at work
9. Marital reconciliation with mate
10. Retirement from work
Think about the long lasting characters. How many of them had one of these thing happen to them in their first novels, or just before the novel, but driving the events?
Now, you might think I should be talking to the authors about this, but you have to embrace the idea of this. We all know: authors can’t make us do anything we don’t want to do…at least, good authors can’t. It’s a whole lot harder to make your author go somewhere they weren’t planning to go…but you can dig in your feet and refuse to go where they plotted. It’s a little like being a bratty three-year old: you can’t get the adults to try a new restaurant, but you sure as heck can make them give up going to that sushi place!
We’re just about out of time for today, so let me ask you all: how many of you have a major change in that first novel? Looks like most of you. How many of you have something from that top ten list? Okay. For those of you who raised your hands, you’ve got a leg up on those who didn’t. If you don’t have that change, think about what you can do. Your author wants you to smile and hold hands with your Significant Other while you walk down the beach on the perfect family vacation? Refuse to do it. Just don’t take that hand…let your author figure out what that means. None of your books are finished yet, or you wouldn’t be here. If you wanted to be around longer than that, you’ve got to be smart.
Alright, that’s our time. Next time, I’m going to talk about what might seem like a contradiction based on what I’ve just told you. Rule #2: Be the same.”
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