1. Chaos Inc.
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    Chaos Inc. Active Member

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    Reflecting on one's childhood

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Chaos Inc., Jun 22, 2014.

    So I've "killed" my main character off in the first chapter of my story. Up until this point there's been literally no character development which is intended because I'm dropping him in the middle of action.

    What the reader knows through the actions of the MC and being told:

    MC is a boy, green eyes, slender calloused hands, patient, a successful hunter of small game, wears a fur cloak, possess a crudely made spear with a stone tip, and has strong instincts.

    Now that he's "dead" he reflects on his life, which needless to say, is quite crappy. The reality is, he's an orphan living on the outskirts of a tribal village in a hilly forest. He has very little memory of who his parents are, he's been fending for himself as long as he can remember, he's never been accepted into the tribe although he's constantly trying, the winters are quite harsh, and he's just hitting puberty.

    What I initially conclude is that he feels constantly rejected, lost, inadequate, and scared. This is pretty much every 13 year old in a less than perfect household, however, I have absolutely no desire to write an a typical emo rant about "how it sucks to be me" even though it's a good way to connect with the reader.

    If I was reading and the author went down this road, I'd toss the book into the fire and wonder what else I could have gotten with my five bucks. I would really like to show the fight in this kid as he struggled against all these factors to get to where he is, unfortunately which is "dead".

    So what consequence would I face with the reader if this reflection is not relatable to them?
     
  2. Okon
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    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why do you try to make the reader care about the boy after he's dead? I wouldn't read far into a book that doesn't have much character development even on the first page, and I wouldn't care how awful someone's life was when they are no longer a contending character.

    Instead of telling the reader what his problems are, why can't you show her? Things like him sleeping alone in a cave, or watching families with a bit of jealousy. You could have a scene of him being turned away from the tribe, too.
     
  3. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    You may want to ask yourself why you're choosing this method of storytelling. I think your instinct is right--readers will have a hard time relating to the character and will likely get bored. That's because, the way you have it, you're bypassing the opportunity to show the reader all these situations and instead opt to tell her/him after the fact. That mode of storytelling lends itself to summarizing and news-bulletin-esque style of writing, which sucks all the emotion out.

    If you want the reader to get the sense that the character feels a certain way, make the reader feel that way. Don't tell her/him what to feel, though. Show it through the events of the story, through the way the character interacts with the world and the people, the way he deals with the shitstorm life throws at him. Give us his reactions, his thoughts, his decisions in the moment, while they're happening, so we can see how he deals with tension and pressure. We can see how he deals with the fallout of bad decisions or tough luck. Telling us after the fact takes us out of that immediacy, and it's the immediacy that grips us and makes us care.

    Don't skimp on character development. It's not a trade-off between character development and action--action is the perfect opportunity to push the characters and force them to make decisions. Get into their heads and show the reader how they tick and why they do what they do. Without character development the character becomes boring--a cardboard cutout. And readers won't relate to a cardboard cutout.
     
  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I am in the middle of reading an extremely motivational book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules, by Steven James. The book is fascinating, and one of the best how-to books I've read recently.

    He makes two points that might be relevant here. One is a quote from the long-dead writer Blaise Pascal: "The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first."

    You might possibly be hamstringing your story with this start of yours. From what I'm picking up in your OP, @Chaos Inc. , you haven't written any of the rest of your story yet, but you're already having strong doubts about it.

    If it were me having doubts at this point, I would just get writing. Leave the beginning as it is for the moment, and just write your story with as much heart and depth as you can. I'd say write it as if you don't know the ending. When you get to the end, you might surprise yourself.

    Steve James also makes the point that "If you introduce a POV character then kill her off in the first chapter, you risk the readers becoming wary that you might take advantage of their time and emotional investment again."

    This kind of trick can certainly be done, and can be done well. But you do need to be aware that unless you set up a VERY intriguing character and situation, you'll be handicapping yourself as a writer with this start. You know your character is dead, and so do your readers. All suspense is removed, so the other factors—motivation, conflict, strong characterisation, empathy—will need to be strong enough to replace it. Why does this death matter?

    Who is telling your story in the first chapter? If you could give us a third-party narrator who is NOT the protagonist, this might well be the trick that works.

    What if this third party character/narrator is somebody who loves the person who dies in the first chapter (or hates the person who dies, or feels responsible for the person who dies?)

    This third party will be emotionally affected by the protagonist's death, and this might be enough to propel the rest of the story. We will want to find out why the protagonist became so important to this narrator. You can then go ahead and tell the main character's story, and it won't feel irrelevant just because we know he's already dead.
     
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2014
  5. Chaos Inc.
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    Chaos Inc. Active Member

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    Let me be more specific. I've lead the reader to believe I've killed off my character in the first thousand pages of the chapter. Whether or not this is enough time for the reader to give a rip about him is irrelevant at this point. I had hoped the quotation marks around the word dead and killed would have caused pause on this matter.
     
  6. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    You just described the exact narrative structure of Citizen Kane. Especially with "news-bulletin-esque".

    Also, that is eerie considering your username. :)
     
  7. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is a very long chapter. :p
     
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  8. Chaos Inc.
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    Chaos Inc. Active Member

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    Words!
     
  9. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    So he's not really 'dead'? Is he a zombie? A ghost? When I first saw this thread, I thought he had become a ghost and the plot was about him wrestling with his (literal) demons as he comes to grips with what had happened to him and working on a way to move on.

    If he's not really dead, is he just lying on the ground griping about how much his life sucked until someone finally gets to him? Is the whole story just a flashback that ends with him being where he was in the beginning? In my opinion, I don't care how he ended up like that, I don't really need a whole story to tell me how he ended up where he was on Page 1. I'd much rather open up the book to him lying on the ground half-dead, griping about his place in the world before his hunting instincts kick in and thus begin his long, desperate fight for survival. As he tries to keep from dying and find a place for himself, he reflects on his life and every decision he made that got him to this situation.

    Sorry, I'm not really sure where you're trying to go with this. Also, as others said, you're going to have to figure out a way to hold your readers in after you've tricked them into believing he died before the story even started.
     
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  10. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Keep in mind, Citizen Kane is a film. Films and novels are two different media, with different techniques, and different advantages and disadvantages. What works for one medium may not work for the other.

    And my username is a reference to the Rush song of the same name. Any similarities to Coleridge or Olivia Newton John are purely coincidental :whistle: (yes, I know the song is based on the poem...).

    Meh, my chapters tend to be about three to five thousand words. Seems reasonable enough.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't see how it's irrelevant. If the reader doesn't care, then his death and all the material about his past is wasted.

    (Also..."Hoped...would have caused pause?" If you're asking a question, it's best to just ask, rather than make people try to figure out the question as well as the answer. It did cause me to pause, to wonder, and to decline to provide any answer at all. I don't think that's a very useful result.)
     
  12. nhope
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  13. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    To clarify, I was teasing the OP for this: "the first thousand pages of the chapter"

    3k-5k words per chapter is actually the exact length range that I have been recommending to authors for quite some time.
     
  14. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, totally missed that! Shows how much attention I'm paying...
     
  15. Chaos Inc.
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    Chaos Inc. Active Member

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    Thanks @jannert and @nhope for providing useful feedback.
     
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  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not a fan of 'back from the dead' stories—and certainly not zombie ones. But if this is where you're headed with this story, you might want to make it clear to the reader right at the start that the MC is not really dead, but has turned into something else. (Some version of: 'I'm not really dead but everybody thinks I died.')

    Some writers are very skilled in presenting a POV character as an unreliable narrator—somebody who tells us their story, but they are basically either lying through their teeth or withholding important information. This works well in skilled hands, but can be totally offputting if it's done just to throw the reader off-track, only to make them feel slightly foolish later on.

    I'd say, in general, it's not a good idea to 'trick' a reader into believing something important–like your POV character is dead and the rest of the book will be a flashback leading to the moment he dies—then say later on 'ha ha, fooled you.' The reader can become so annoyed and so mistrustful of the author that they stop reading. I'm pretty sure I would.

    Lots of people seem to be having bother with this thread. Maybe it's because we're not sure what you're trying to do with your story. Is this character's past—in other words, what led him to the point where he died—the main story itself?

    Or is he simply an 'undead' character who moves on, after presenting a bit of backstory to get us oriented to him and his situation? Is the main story going to be how he heads for redemption, revenge, whatever?

    If he's 'undead' and the story moves on from his personal history, then how does he feel when he wakes up 'dead?' He must have lots of feelings about the whole experience. Is he furious that his life got cut short? Is he desperately sad because knows he can never really be 'alive' again, and he's going to miss out on love, family, children, etc? Or he thinks, 'fantastic, now I can really begin to live and take revenge on everybody who put me here?'

    Emotional focus might be the place to start, rather than spending time fooling the reader into thinking your character is really dead. Dead as in, dead. Gone. No longer in existence in any form. An ex-character.

    Possibly the problem is not with your story itself, but just in the way you've presented your ideas to us. If you can let us know where you intend your story to go, I think we can all be more helpful with our feedback to your ideas.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2014
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  17. Chaos Inc.
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    Chaos Inc. Active Member

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    The reader should only believe the MC is dead for about 500 words, not because I've ever said he was but because of the totality of his circumstances.

    Our brains have a tendency to make assumptions when there's no evidence to prove otherwise. If my MC fell from a mountain, tumbled 1000 feet over rocks then loses consciousness, people will believe he's dead. Why do they do that? Because they feel they would be dead. On the other hand, if I give an important detail that seems benign at first but eventually plays an important role in his survival, the reader forgets about it, and I am careful not to contradict this fact in elevating the danger, I believe it's on the reader (that was a nasty run on sentence).

    The original question was to focus on these 500 words that reflect on his childhood up until now. I know how I'm going to do it. There was a lot of focus on the fact that I had him killed off instead of the question. I guess until I post the first chapter, people are going to think I don't know what I'm doing.
     
  18. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    This suggests that you're in some win/lose contest with the reader. It's not your job to win, it's your job to give them a story that they want to read.
     
  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's not that you don't know what you're doing—it's that I have no idea what you're doing—at least not yet! :) I guess I need to see the finished chapter first.

    It sounds like you're more on top of this than I originally thought. In fact, I'm now not sure what the story problem actually was. I'm sorry if I gave out feedback based on me getting hold of the wrong end of the stick. Good luck. I'm looking forward to seeing this, if and when you post a completed chapter in the Workshop.
     
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