Living on the fringe

Helga’s Post #3 — As you can tell by now, we are all occupied (or preoccupied, as the case may be) with laying the foundation for our new novels as we embark on our writing challenge. For some of us that means outlining chapters to be written, or, in Joe’s words, world building, but for all of us character development is pretty central. While I can’t speak for my writing buddies, these brain-exercises occupy a big chunk of my time, effort and, yes, cause agony. I only started writing the first sentence of my first chapter after giving birth to my central character and when she was planted firmly in my head. As anyone who has ever written anything in his or her live can attest, this initial phase can be brutal and result in many a sleepless night.

I think of this phase as constructing a high building. The foundation has to be solid before I can start building the first floor, and the second. Perhaps the first and second floors will hold up even if my foundation isn’t rock solid and perfect. But with every additional floor my building gets increasingly unstable. Maybe I can get to the tenth floor, but then, kaboom, the whole structure comes crashing down. That’s what’s known as ‘I wrote myself into a corner’. It means having to go back, often all the way to chapter one, and re-write, edit, re-write again, to make every scene connect logically to all others. Before I know, a year has gone by and I’m still fiddling with the prologue.

Clearly, this is not an option if I want to meet our February 5, 2013 deadline. The foundation has got to be solid. How then I ask, are some authors able to churn out book after successful book in dizzying speed? Do they spend a lot of time on outlining and character development? Surely there’s not enough time if you write one novel every year. No, wait. Take Nora Roberts, recently interviewed on Sunday Morning. Between 1982 and 1984 she wrote 23 novels. That’s one novel a month! She started publishing around 1980, and has written and published well over 200 books, many of them bestsellers. By her own estimate, it takes her around 45 days to write a novel. And then she starts the next one. (Note to self: must stop grumbling about a five-month deadline!) Sure, one can argue, these are largely romance novels, requiring less research than some other genres, plus, her characters make reappearances. Awesome, just the same. I doubt she spends much time on outlines.

So back to character. I want mine to be somebody who opens my readers’ hearts. But that’s not enough. I, her Creator, have to love her too. That translates into my main character being heroic, likeable and somewhat unusual. Somewhat? No. Very! With that in mind, I decided, that my protagonist will be

  • Strong, brave, uninhibited, rebellious
  • Courageous, tough and amusing
  • Having fun and believing in herself
  • And of course defying authority

Sounds like superwoman? You may be surprised to learn that these are in fact the defining qualities of my early childhood heroine (already mentioned in my previous post), Pippi Longstocking. She too was unconventional, assertive, and very unusual. While my grownup version will not carry a horse or lift the strongest man in the world, she will nonetheless be a character on the fringe. No near-perfect Vogue-like features, gorgeous drop-dead body or blindingly white teeth. Oh, she’ll be attractive and absolutely sexy, but these qualities will evolve in the way other characters interact with her. And she certainly was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. Everything she is, and owns, is from her own effort.

Why not make her perfect in the conventional sense? Isn’t that what readers want? Perhaps this is a personal preference, but I love books with characters that don’t fit the mold. To mind comes John Irving, master of the fringe. Take his latest novel, ‘In One Person’, about a young bisexual man who falls in love with an older transgender woman. A central character in ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ is of stunted growth and has a damaged larynx and speech. In ‘The World According to Garp’ Irving introduces us to a transsexual ex-football player. And in ‘A Son of the Circus’, readers are entertained (and shocked) by assorted circus performers, dwarfs and cripples, prostitutes and transsexuals. There are myriads of authors who create fringe central characters. And with good reason: Readers love them.

That’s all I will say for now about my central character. Next time I’ll reveal a little bit more about her. And maybe about my antagonist too.

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