The Rest of the Story – Ruben D. Gonzales
You could call it the back story. It’s what happened in the past that affects your protagonist today, sometimes told via a flashback.
I am told by editors/experts that our heroes need to be flawed in some way, not perfect. No one roots for the perfect hero. They must have flaws, challenges, problems. They shouldn’t be boring. So, a flashback of sorts brings awareness to your character’s past and how that flaw shapes your protagonist today and how that explains why and how he reacts in the present.
That’s easier said than done and I struggle with the concept. It may be a bit of laziness on my part or inexperience in my writing. On first draft my heroes are always too perfect. They are all tall and handsome or slim and beautiful. I guess boring because most people are not like that. We are imperfect.
I’m reading J.K. Rowling’s books – writing as Robert Galbraith – in which her main character, C.B. Strike, hobbles about the detective/mystery series on a prosthetic leg, having lost his real leg while serving with the British army as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan. She tells his backstory in bits and pieces throughout the first part of the book, not all in a big dump (another subject).
The outwardly apparent disability makes Strike an imperfect hero. The disability pops up regularly in scenes as he is unable to “dash” after would be suspects and capture them, thus leading to much anger and continued dismay at his condition, only assuaged by large amounts of alcoholic beverages, taken in a variety of pubs.
The physical disability is the visible flaw that defines Strike, but he is also flawed in his social interactions, which makes his interactions with people in general quite interesting. His character has trouble with interpersonal relationships, especially with his attraction to his pretty partner, and much of the book involves this on again-off again attraction between them. So there is a psychological flaw as well. I’m not sure where that ultimately leads since I haven’t read all the books, but in the meantime it adds a second level of texture to the man.
C.B. Strike is flawed on two levels and this makes him a complex character. His partner has her own flaws as well. In fact the whole book is full of flawed, suspect, unreliable characters. Maybe this is what makes good mystery books. Maybe that’s as it should be, since we are all flawed on some level. Maybe it’s these imperfections that make our lives so interesting. I think J.K. Rowling gets that.
In the first draft of my new book, Murder on Black Mountain, my characters were all perfect with little flaws. It took me several drafts to beat them up and add physical and emotional flaws to their back stories. I think it made the characters and the story richer for it since we can all identify with human frailty. If you already knew this then congratulations, but if you came to this late like me, we’ve got work to do.
As Time Goes By – Ruben D. Gonzales
In the great movie, Casablanca, the whole story takes place in only three or four days. There is a flashback scene that stretches the narrative, but still for being one of the great movies ever written, the short period of time is skillfully handled. There were four or five shots of Rick’s Café American, sandwiched around a market scene and the final scene at the airport (left) where Rick tells Elsa “We’ll always have Paris.”
Authors need to utilize time effectively in their writing. Time is not limited to flashbacks and prologues. In a protagonist’s typical day opportunities to enhance and clarify your story will revolve around effective use of time. These opportunities should be sized upon, “in the Rick of time”.
Over the years I’ve struggled with the time element in my writing. I’ve used elaborate calendars to map out the sequence of events and to make sure time flows in a logical fashion throughout the book. The calendar has caught many irregularities and I’ve been able to rectify those in the second and third drafts to make my story flow with the proper time sequence.
Publisher rejections are based on a variety of reason so getting the time frame and reference correct eliminates one more reason for a rejection.
As a writer you control how time passes and the resulting flow of the narrative. Some stories take place over a very short interval while others may take years. In my first book, “The Cottage on the Bay”, my main characters life was the interval and it took ninety some years to complete. In my second book, “Murder on Black Mountain”, my main character completes her case in a couple of weeks. Both required detailed time mapping to get the story right so it flows without disturbing the reader’s journey.
Many authors use the chapter heading to identify the time period (and sometimes place) the story is taking place in or transitioning to. This is a straight forward but useful tool, keeping everyone, including the author, on the same page and point in time. Other authors strategically incorporate a time reference at the beginning of a chapter or change in a point of view; “The sun rose over the horizon in a red ball.”
When revising look for opportunities to incorporate visual clues to the scene, there-by setting the time frame for what’s to follow. Be aware of the passage of time and don’t leave the reader behind. Use your character’s senses to denote the time frame. Make sure your characters are aware of the passage of time. Make time for creatively using the need for a bathroom, meal, sleep, and all the other time interruptions a normal human would need during a regular day.
Ruben D. Gonzales