||[Sep. 29th, 2016|12:46 pm]
1. Page proofs done for Cold Welcome, and the next stage in its progress towards a release in Apri.
2. Untitled (and thus not in italics, because "untitled" is not a great title for this book...maybe writers should switch to the musical method of cataloging works, where some untitled things just have numbers) new book is at 69,000+ words. It is...more of a mystery, though it's still a Vatta book.
Untitled is validating the proposition that healthy writers write better than unhealthy writers, because compared to the composition and revision period of Cold Welcome (when I wasn't healthy) the new book is better in rough than CW was when sent in. How can I tell that? I'm not sick. Untitled is moving ahead slower than books I wrote 20 years ago, true, but that's age (in part) and it's a healthy slow, not a sign of problems in the book itself or in the writer. It's moving ahead steadily, with an internal feel of "wanting to be written" and "having a direction." The characters are arriving into the book (when it's their turn) knowing who they are and what they're doing and why. When I need a "utility" character (someone to accomplish a limited set of actions when none of the existing characters can do it) one shows up, passes the audition, and goes straight to work.
A utility character is different from a spearholder. Spearholders are part of setting: you can't have a bus going somewhere without a driver, so there's a driver, but he may be just a necessary part of the bus. Your POV character may not interact with the driver, or may hand the driver a ticket, token, money, may notice that the driver looks tired, or is young, but it's like noticing that the bus's seats are blue (or yellow or whatever)...scenery.
A utility character has more to do than the bus driver (and the apparent spear-carrier may turn out to be a utility character...if you can do it that way, it's a reasonable way.) For instance, let's say you need someone to find out something, but there are sound reasons why that character isn't able to find it out alone. (The bank president rummaging in the cleaning closet will be noticed and asked why.) Is there someone who *will* run across that scrap of information in the course of their daily life? And who has some kind of connection to the person who needs the information? Like the bank president's spoiled youngest son, who is having to work in the janitorial department of the bank building to pay off repairs on the motorcycle that he crashed over the Easter break? Or maybe it's the daughter of the Loan Officer who was given that job as penance for something else. There's always somebody...) Anyway, that character exists to come across the information in a natural manner, and then to know someone who knows the person who needs it, and is offering it not to solve that person's need--which the character doesn't even know about--but because the character needs to tell somebody for a different reason. Sucn as being seen by the night watchman walking down the hall with a jam jar full of hundred dollar bills, that the character had just found in the cleaning closet, in behind the jugs of toilet cleaner. And the night watchman doesn't believe that story, so up the chain it goes.
Spear carriers don't need backstories, usually. As long as they're just standing in a row holding spears (and maybe singing in the chorus) they're scenery, what's expected in whatever setting it is. The crowd on the sidewalk, the kids in the playground, the mothers chatting on the bench...as the character walks through, they're all scenery. But utility characters, in their usually brief time on stage, are actual characters--speaking parts--and they need backstories and personalities to explain what they're doing and why. Yes, so and so is a clerk in Ladies Dresses. But if she's going to do, or see, or find, or hear something that has import to the main plot, and transfer that information into the chain that leads to a major character's decision to do something plot-worthy, then the reader needs to experience her as a person with agency. You don't of course have to explain everything--tell the whole backstory--but you do have to spotlight that character a little. It matters. It's part of the chain of things that keeps the reader oriented.
So in the new book there's Hector. Unless I change his name (or sex or whatever, but he's pretty solid as he is.) He's not in Cold Welcome. He's in the military, and he has an unexciting but vital job. He makes sure the right form is used for the right purpose and that each form crossing his desk has all the little boxes filled with the correct information for that box. Someone, for their own purpose, wants him to use a form for the wrong thing, and leave many of the boxes empty, or "just make something up; it doesn't matter." It offends him; of course it matters that the right form, and the right information is in the right box. But under the circumstances, he feels he must comply. What does a dedicated paper pusher do when someone wants to falsify records?
Right, he makes copies of what's been done. And from a small (and safe, for now) resistance to what he sees as one kind of wrongdoing, and blames on someone's laziness, comes the discovery of a different and larger wrongdoing. He realizes that this is more...and now he has a motivation for taking the problem up the chain of command.
Hector's motivations, like everyone's motivations, grow from both his innate characteristics and his external experiences and his understanding of them. It is a vector calculation, as he (like all of us) has many competing motivations tugging him toward different actions in a different order.The reader doesn't have to know them all, or observe the calculations, but does need to feel that Hector's actions arise naturally. So the reader needs to see enough of Hector to know what kind of person he is. In what circumstances do people most quickly reveal what kind of person they are? We meet Hector arguing with another clerk about the request (order, actually, from the other clerk's commander.)
Utility characters aren't limited to discovering important information, or passing information along; this is just an example. But they're usually in the middle-man position in some way. A temptation is to make them too special, when they verge on becomin tertiary, or even secondary, characters. Keep them close to "average"; it's their location, or their job, that makes them the likely one to find or do something that propagates toward the more important characters. Good utility characters don't try to hold onto center stage for the whole play--they say their lines and leave (whether or not pursued by a bear.)