Surviving “The End”: advice for literary characters (part 2)
This is the second in my lecture series on how to survive your first novel here at Fictional Characters University. If you missed the first one, well, you might want to have a talk with your placement counselor.
Here’s a link to the recording of the first one, in case you want to review it later:
You’ll find it in your reference materials, and online at my FCU homepage.
Just to refresh your recollection, I’m Thackeray “Tack” Carlson. I’ve been in 23 novels, and a heap of adaptations, and I made my first appearance in 1936.
You might think 23 puts me into a rarefied category, but you know what? Just being in two novels does that. We characters don’t have much of a life expectancy…not one percent of us make it past our first novel and on to a second one.
You’re all here because you are hoping to be one of the lucky ones.
Well, let me tell you…there is a lot of luck involved.
Sure as daylight in Dallas, though, it’s not just luck. There are things you can do to up your odds. There are no guarantees: it doesn’t matter how good a case I’ve made in court, you never know what’s going to happen in that deliberation room.”
“Tack is fine…I’m not on the faculty here, just a guest lecturer.”
“Um…I was wondering. As a fictional lawyer, don’t you know you are going to win every case?”
“Well, let’s just say I’ve won my fair share…some people might say more than that. No question, I’ve got it easier than my real world counterparts, but I’ve lost a few cases. I guess the difference is that when I lose, something good always comes out of it. Wouldn’t satisfy my fans if it didn’t. As I was saying, there are some guidelines for getting to number two.
Last time, I talked about embracing change. You need an origin story. You see, we fictional folks are extraordinary. That’s what makes us worth reading about. People are going to want to know what made you that way. They want to see a path from every day to once in a lifetime. That doesn’t mean they want to walk that path…most of them are just fine with the troubles and tribulations they have now. It just helps them sympathize and yes, believe in you, if they can see how you got there.
Does anybody remember what I said I was going to talk about this time?”
“Be the same.”
“Yep. Thanks for paying attention last time…or for cheating off the website on your SmartPhone. Either one shows initiative.
You see, I don’t want to set you up just to get to two books…I want you to do a series. You have to figure out what makes a reader want to find out more about you…and what makes them satisfied when they do.
What’s your name, ‘be the same’?”
“Young adult. My name’s meta: I’m a kid from a hunter/gatherer culture who got adopted by geek parents.”
“Okay. You knew the topic of today’s talk…do you mind if I use you to illustrate a point?”
“Go ahead…I’m used to that.”
“What’s the name of the Lone Ranger’s horse?”
“I’m impressed! I wasn’t sure you’d know.”
“I’ve got the internet. Besides, my parents taught me to be interested in everything, and John Reid’s one of the original superheroes.”
“John Reid? Are you sure?”
“I wanted to keep it simple. I’ve found I have a tendency to confuse people.”
“Got it. Well, the point is, you knew the name of his horse. Lots of people do. Does your family have a car?”
“No. We’re part of the sharing economy…we don’t like to own stuff.”
“I understand. Do you know anybody who has a car?”
“Some people at my Mom’s work.”
“What are the names of their cars?”
“You mean like the model?”
“No, the individual car. Since we’re talking about the Reid family, like the Black Beauty.”
“I don’t know.”
“Has any of them had more than one car since you’ve known them?”
“Sure. My Mom’s co-worker totaled hers.”
“That’s too bad.”
“It really wasn’t…long story, and one I probably shouldn’t talk about in class.”
“We don’t want to get anybody in trouble. Did she get the same kind of car?”
“Was anybody shocked that she got a different car?”
“What if the Lone Ranger drove that same car?”
“The Lone Ranger doesn’t drive a car.”
“Exactly, thank you. The Lone Ranger doesn’t drive a car. The Lone Ranger rides a horse named Silver. The Lone Ranger also wears a mask. The Lone Ranger uses silver bullets, and doesn’t shoot to kill. All of those are things that make the Lone Ranger, well, the Lone Ranger. Readers expect to see those elements when they see the Lone Ranger.”
“What about Tonto?”
“Hold on to that thought…I’m going to come back to that.
Real worlders aren’t defined the same way…they are much more complex. Think about it: how many words describe one of us when a reader first meets us? How many data points? It would be unusual if readers knew more than about five things about us after that first encounter. I’m a mixed race lawyer cowboy with a horse named Seafounder. That defines me.
When a real worlder meets another real worlder, they have probably a hundred data points or more: height, hair color, eye color, accent, shoe brand, where they sit in the room, what car they drive, brand of clothes, perfume or cologne or whatever, and so on.
Change one of my characteristics and I might be twenty percent different to the average reader. Change one characteristic about a real worlder, and it’s only maybe one percent.”
“Are you asking one, or did you want me to ask you one?”
“Um…asking. It’s not really important, though.”
“I was just kidding you…let’s let the class decide what’s important. That’s what the readers do when we speak, anyway.”
“I was just wondering: why is your horse’s name Seafounder?”
“Well, I don’t know about everybody else, but I think that’s a great question…especially since it lets me give you a great answer. My original author’s name is Buck Tooson, but as I mentioned last time, her real name was Mary Prydudd. Anybody know what kind of name that is?”
“You got it. Anybody here speak Welsh? No? Worth a shot…I’ve noticed every year that these classes are getting to be more diverse. ‘Cyfiawnder’ is Welsh for ‘Justice’. Buck figured, rightly I think, that folks would have anglicized that, so Cyfiawnder become Seafounder. Now, I know a lot of you probably don’t see a connection between being a lawyer and justice, but Buck did, and I do, too. Good story, right? Thanks again for asking.
Let’s see…oh, yes. So, you don’t to go against what people expect to see. I call the principle, ‘Ride the same horse’.
Does that sound boring?
It doesn’t have to be…although be careful about what your author wants to make part and parcel of your main characteristics. You want it to be flexible enough to work in a lot of situations. Remember, you can refuse to pick up that buggy whip, if that’s what the author wants you to do. If you are really uncomfortable with it, they can tell.”
“I don’t want to be the same all the time.”
“There are some options for taking a personality vacation every once in a while. You can go undercover as someone else. You can have a dream sequence. You can go off canon…you know, in parodies and fan fiction, unofficial adventures. Just don’t overdue it.
Now, who asked me about Tonto?”
“That was me.”
“What’s your story?”
“I bake cupcakes that change people’s lives. You see, I have deep insight into the problems people have, and I bake a specific cupcake with particular flavors, ingredients, and decorations that act as a catalyst to send them in a new direction.”
“That’s different. Who else is in the bakery with you?”
“I’m pretty much it, at least as the story goes so far.”
“Do you see the same people, after you change them?”
“Nobody helps you? There are no recurring characters besides you? You don’t have a Tonto?”
“Not in eleven short stories, and not in the latest draft of the novel. Is that a problem?”
“Let’s just say that’s going to be the topic of my next lecture in this series: Rule #3: have interesting friends and/or enemies. See you all then!”
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