1. Antaus

    Antaus Active Member

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    Dealing with a Normal Character

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Antaus, Jul 26, 2017.

    I've run into another slight snag in the story I'm writing, and could use some advice on the matter. One of the main characters starts out in their everyday life, as is often the case before 'it' hits the fan. Here's the thing, this character also starts out very average. Woman in her late 30s, divorced, dead-end job. While things do change later on, when her part of the story begins, she's literally a face in the crowd, someone you wouldn't think much about if you passed them on the street.

    The problem I have is writing about what happens before things get exciting. Basically her going about her normal life. The thing is I'm not sure how much to write, how much to detail, and so on. The reason being is that after she becomes involved in the plot there's a large setting shift where 'life problems' are really irrelevant as she's trying not to get killed by a lot of hostiles. Normal life to avoid the psycho bad guys type of thing.

    I know they say you're suppose to set things up in the calm before the storm, but the thing is her involvement in the plot comes out of left field. Normal life, doing normal stuff, normal problems, wham, bang, explosions, screams, wtf just happened? I guess what I'm saying in a nutshell is that before becoming embroiled in events, nothing in her life or surrounding it directly involve the plot. Therefore I'm not sure what to write about. Do I just have her going about life for a bit then throw her into the frying pan early on, or wait it out for a while?
     
  2. Seren

    Seren Writeaholic

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    Stasis always needs to be established, otherwise we won't understand just how much the plot of the book affects the character at first because we won't know what their "normal" is. Someone working in the police force, for instance, would usually be less shaken up by "wham, bang, explosions, screams" than someone who works as a secretary. So yes, we do need to see some of your character's normal life, although it doesn't have to march on forever. It could be just as short as one chapter, if that chapter gives us a good enough feel for her normal life.

    Now, "normal" doesn't automatically equate to "boring". It depends on your character. Just because she is in her late 30s, divorced, and has a dead-end job, it doesn't mean that she can't have ten cats who are always causing trouble, a tendency to wear mismatching shoes by accident, or the world's worst luck of always getting splashed by passing cars when she's a pedestrian in the rain. Her dead-end job might involve a boss who is always coming onto her, and she has to find amusing ways to get away from him. Her ex-husband might keep sending her dead squirrels in the mail. The point is that her "normal" may in fact be interesting or even amusing, and it would give us a sense of her character before the big stuff happens and her world is tipped upside down, as well as what is actually being tipped upside down.
     
  3. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    In addition to what @Seren said, I'd like to ask an obvious question. What does your character think of her 'normal' life?

    Is she glad to be on her own, devoid of crappy husband, and just enjoying the peace and freedom to do whatever she likes in her 'off hours?' Does she regret the time spent in that marriage? Does she miss the intimacy and companionship of marriage, even if she doesn't actually miss 'him?' Does she long for marital 'happiness'—if she ever had it—to return? Is she full of confidence, because she had the strength to dump the cad who cheated on her? Does she feel worthless because SHE'S been dumped for a younger, prettier version of herself? Does she want her husband to return? Is she resolved to never marry again? Would she be happy if she just had more money? Or more friends? Or if a cyclone appeared and took her away from Kansas?

    In other words, let's get a handle on her mental state. If she loves her life at the moment, she's probably not going to welcome disruption of any kind. On the other hand, if she is longing for something to 'happen,' this might just be what she needs. She might not think so when it begins to happen, especially if her life is in danger, but see what you can do to direct focus towards dealing with whatever her mental state might be.

    The first chapter or so can certainly show what a character's life is like before stuff starts to happen. But this is your grand opportunity to send the story off in the direction you want it to go. The key to your character isn't her situation. It's what she thinks of her situation, and what she would like to happen 'next.' Or what she most fears might happen 'next.'
     
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2017
  4. Walking Dog

    Walking Dog Active Member

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    The way I would handle this is to think of the story in scenes. Show the MC for a few paragraphs or few pages, giving the reader a sense of personality and the life this person lives. Then introduce the villains by showing them in preparation or doing their thing. Or, you could have it the other way around, the villains first, then the MC. Be ambiguous about the villains and their intention to stimulate mystery or anticipation. Maybe the action begins before the MC crosses paths with the villains. Either way, go back and forth until you end a chapter with the crossing of paths -- a great hook to start the next chapter. Think of your story as a movie. For every scene, make an index card or sticky note. Write the most important elements of the scene on the card or sticky note and arrange them in sequence. Try not to waste a scene. Each scene should carry weight by offering information about a character or the story; otherwise, toss it. Once you have the scenes worked-out, write them.
     
  5. amerrigan

    amerrigan Active Member

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    I recommend re-watching 'stranger than fiction' - great example of making normal stuff fascinating through writing.
     
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  6. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Contributor Contributor

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    You really don't need to do a lot of preparation for showing a 'normal' person's 'normal' life. Readers can get the mid-30s, dead end job pretty quickly. Maybe some highlights or interesting character traits (dreams/shattered dreams or aspirations) and why she is resigned and her coping skills, give her an admirable trait or two, but you don't need to spend much time on the 'normal' aspect. Get on with the story and major events in the plot.
     
  7. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I totally disagree with the idea that we should establish "stasis" or show the character's ordinary life before things change. Is this really something people consider to be conventional wisdom?

    I'm much more a fan of the "start your story where your story starts" approach - I start writing at the point that the character's ordinary life is blown apart (whether the character knows that or not).

    Are you guys really reading books that spend a significant amount of time (a whole chapter?!? the first damn chapter?!?) setting up what the character is like before anything interesting happens? This doesn't seem like a wise approach, to me...
     
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  8. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I don't see any reason to spend any significant amount of time on "normal" life. And by "significant amount", I suspect that I mean "more than a sentence." Or maybe two. There are a lot of ways to make that sentence indicate a boring ordinary life.

    By six o'clock, Jane had finished the last of the photocopying. She was entering the day's hours on her timecard when she heard an odd echoing voice from the elevator bay, repeating the word "Exterminate."
     
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  9. GlitterRain7

    GlitterRain7 Galaxy Girl Contributor

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    One thing's for sure, you need to let the reader have an idea of what your MC's mental state is. The reader needs to know what kind of a person they're reading about. You said she's divorced, has a dead end job, and in her late 30s. How does she feel about these things? I'm assuming that these things sort of stick out in the beginning of your story since you listed them, so elaborate on them, expand them.
     
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  10. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin I don't feel tardy.... Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Agree with @TWErvin2 and @BayView. Normal life doesn't need a lot of explanation because most prospective readers are leading one already or are at least aware of what normal life looks like. You don't need to a lengthy setup to juxtapose a regular day at the office vs. explosions and psycho killers on the prowl. If your MC was a widget dealer on an alien world or a witch hunter in the 14th century they would obviously need a more carefully explained baseline, but the regular Jane at her regular job is a preloaded archetype. That doesn't mean you need to start blowing things up in the second paragraph, but until something goes wrong, there isn't a lot of write about. And the attention span of the typical reader is fairly short. Most of them read books to escape their humdrum lives, not to have them reinforced.
     
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  11. Antaus

    Antaus Active Member

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    I appreciate both points of view, as they've pointed out a good bit of information to think about. I think I need to find a balance between the two. I need to show normal life enough to establish a little about the character, but not drag it on so long the reader loses interest.
     
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  12. RWK

    RWK Member

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    Read Stephen King. Many of his characters are ordinary people, and he does an amazing job of establishing ordinary lives. Needful Things, 'Salem' Lot, Christine...the list is endless.
     
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  13. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    A middle ground is to depict an important event in the ordinary life. At the beginning of Reign of Fire, the kid had just lost his scholarship, which was desperately important until the dragons destroyed civilization.
     
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  14. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Yeah, I agree - there has to be something to create some interest. So if you're not taking the start-where-the-story-starts approach (which I still do really recommend) then create some other source of conflict--she's just gotten an envelope that contain her finalized divorce papers and she's struggling to find ways to not open them up, or she's just told off her boss at her dead-end job and isn't sure she's even employed anymore or something that gives us some action.
     
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  15. UnderTheMoon

    UnderTheMoon Member

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    I read a brilliant quote from Sally Wainwright who wrote the fabulous Last Tango in Halifax, who said you should write Episode 1 like you're writing Episode 3, which is advice I take whether writing scripts or stories - one problem is it cuts down my word count but it also eliminates so much waffle - you can always revisit your character's old life later on on the novel if it seems necessary to the plot.
     
  16. Seren

    Seren Writeaholic

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    Just to clarify, my preference for the establishing of "normal" was also supposed to be interesting, as the opening of your book is obviously very important and must grab people's attention. Plenty of books open with the catalyst occurring and do a good job, but I think it depends on how dramatic the catalyst is. Anyway, I certainly don't want to read about how boring the MC's day at work was or some info-dump. I suppose that the "stasis" can potentially be a new normal for the character - something out of the ordinary has just happened to them. But for their entire life to be turned upside down before I even knew a shred about what their life even was...it just wouldn't make me feel anything. I wouldn't care.
     
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  17. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    You may have an opportunity to have a mini goal before the main one appears. A simple life still has minor goals like making it to a wedding, or being able to go to a class reunion. Not that any of that should take up more then a paragraph, it is a chance to paint a picture of your character. Is she laid back or a nervous Nelly? Does she have friends that are willing to help her achieve her goal? and so on.
    I watched a movie where two guys were trying to bury their friend's ashes in a Harley gas tank. Nothing exciting, but I was into the whole thing, from start to finish. I know, doesn't say much for my taste in film, but it is what it is.
     
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2017
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  18. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    1) I would actually want a little bit more lead-up than that if the book is about the character's normal life being twisted in on itself. Jumping right into unusual nature of the plot seems like it would work better if the unusual part is the character's "normal" baseline:

    The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault. – Harry Dresden, first sentence of Blood Rites (by Jim Butcher)
    He's lying :D

    2) Were you trying to give me nightmares?
     
  19. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Well, not on purpose, but it would give me a lovely feeling of power.
     
  20. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    There's a difference between just showing us what a character's life is like at the start of a story, and letting us in on what the character thinks of her life at that point. Without insight into the character's thoughts and feelings 'at present,' the status-quo beginning can become an infodump. The insight into the character's mind and heart is the best way to work this kind of beginning.

    Is your character contented with her life?—meaning that change is certainly foreshadowed and will probably be upsetting for her and interesting for the reader to watch? Or is she desperate for things to change—which means change will be exciting for her (maybe more exciting than she bargained for) and for the reader as well? The status quo provides a starting point for the changes. The character can end the story feeling their life has changed for the better, or the character can later appreciate what they had before and what they may have lost. This kind of approach focuses a story in a certain direction.

    An author who grounds the story in this fashion is likely to have an audience on board by the time things do change. And won't have to waste a lot of time backtracking to let us know how the character 'got here.' An author can use the 'present state of affairs' sort of beginning to foreshadow what is to come.

    Of course it's not the only way to start a story. But it is a time-honored way to start a story, and many stories use this device.
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2017
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