Sunday, October 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Character Understandable?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 31.

This week’s questions:

Do I accomplish the following? 

1. I want to make Alex understandable, via his own disjointed thoughts, not narrative or other’s perceptions. 

2. I want to keep the reader reading until Sarah appears, and takes over.

3. The entire novel is timed, and ends at day 50. Is the first timestamp working? 

Market/Genre: New Adult Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Eighteen months back from Iraq, and preparing for his second year of college, Alex has issues that never were addressed. Sarah, whom he does not know, but will soon (just past the 250 word limit) was just killed but refuses to remain dead. Note: strong on relationship between male/female but NOT Romance.

Alex: day 1, 7:21 PM.

What did I expect? They have no time for me, their friend. What a dingy hole I live in, barely large enough to be called an efficiency apartment. Third floor and the elevator doesn't work. Just like my life, for a few more minutes.

If wishes were quarters, I could buy a Maserati. I should have died seventeen months ago, in the Tikrit back alley when I failed those two boys. The dust storm rolls in over the Palouse wheat fields just like that day.

#

Lights, quiet. Fuzzy person near me. I lifted on one shoulder, collapsed back in pain.

"Take it easy, you're in recovery. You were in surgery for eight hours."

Eyes clearer, I saw a woman in scrubs. Not a bad looker. Easy on the eyes. Smiled, tried a wink with my unbandaged eye, couldn't. My face hurt.

"I wouldn't do that for a while. One round tore off your right cheek. We reattached it. We made many other repairs. Shoulder, hip, back. Some fragments are too close to the spine. You got a ticket home for additional surgery."

At least she smiled. Probably a sympathy smile.

"My squad?" Talking hurt like hell, but I had to know.

"Superficial scratches, and a burn."

"The children?"

"One girl survived. We only took a couple of rounds out of her."

I'm afraid to ask, but must, "The boys?"

"Didn't make it."

#

I try and I fail. Worst is, my failures hurt others. People die when I fail. Just one time, I want to do my best and people come out better for it. One person saved, just one. Is that too much to ask?

My Thoughts in Purple:

Alex: day 1, 7:21 PM.

What did I expect? They have no time for me, [their friend. What a dingy hole I live in] the transition here is a little jarring, as it goes from him thinking about friends to his apartment, barely large enough to be called an efficiency apartment. Third floor and the elevator doesn't work. [Just like my life, for a few more minutes.] This makes it sound like his life doesn’t work for a few more minutes
If wishes were quarters, I could buy a Maserati. [I should have died seventeen months ago, in the Tikrit back alley when I failed those two boys. The dust storm rolls in over the Palouse wheat fields just like that day.] This feels a little infodumpy

#

Lights, quiet. Fuzzy person near me. I lifted on one shoulder, collapsed back in pain.

"Take it easy, you're in recovery. You were in surgery for eight hours." Who says this?

Eyes clearer, I saw a woman in scrubs. Not a bad looker. Easy on the eyes. Smiled, tried a wink with my unbandaged eye, couldn't. My face hurt. Would he really flirt in this condition?

"I wouldn't do that for a while. One round tore off your right cheek. We reattached it. We made many other repairs. Shoulder, hip, back. Some fragments are too close to the spine. You got a ticket home for additional surgery."

At least she smiled. Probably a sympathy smile.

[“My squad?" Talking hurt like hell, but I had to know.] Perhaps make this the first thing he asks?

"Superficial scratches, and a burn."

"The children?"

"One girl survived. We only took a couple of rounds out of her."

I'm afraid to ask, but must, "The boys?"

"Didn't make it." Overall, there’s nothing in this flashback that wasn’t said in “I failed the two boys”, so I wonder why readers need to see it

#

I try and I fail. Worst is, my failures hurt others. People die when I fail. Just one time, I want to do my best and people come out better for it. [One person saved, just one. Is that too much to ask?] Didn’t he save the girl who survived?

The questions:

Do I accomplish the following?

1. I want to make Alex understandable, via his own disjointed thoughts, not narrative or other’s perceptions.


The first person POV does that, as it allows you to be in his head and show the story through his eyes. It’s a good POV choice for that goal.

He’s coming across a little too disjointed right now though, and he’s a bit hard to follow to know what’s going on. I don’t think you need the flashback—especially not broken into a mini-scene—and that information is coming across as infodump. I like that he has a terrible event/memory he’s struggling with, but perhaps looks for ways to show he’s struggling and not tell readers outright. I don’t yet feel that this is him thinking about his life, but the author explaining why his life is bad and what happened to him.

(Here’s more on showing emotion)

I don’t know if this is the first scene of the book or not (It’s Day One so I suspect it is), but his opening thoughts are yanking the reader around between his lack of friends, his crappy apartment, his bad experience where he failed the boys. That paired with the flashback scene breaks makes it tough to follow and know what he’s worried about or where the story is going.

Disjointed thoughts are complicated to get across to readers well. If we write them as we’d think them, they lack enough cohesiveness to keep readers following along. The author knows why the protagonist is changing thoughts and what they mean, but readers don’t, so they get lost very fast.

I’d suggest looking for things to help trigger the disjointed thoughts that you could use to show readers why Alex is suddenly shifting what he’s thinking about. Maybe he sees a boy run by, or hears one laugh—anything that clues readers in to “this triggered a memory.”

(Here’s more on stimulus and response)

You might also consider letting readers get to know Alex better before his thoughts start wandering. That way, they’ll have a better sense of who he is and what his problem is to help ground them and provide context for his disjointed thoughts. Perhaps show a few examples of his mind wandering and him trying to get it back on track so readers can see this is a thing he does. Once they get that, he can be a little more random and they’ll be able to follow.

2. I want to keep the reader reading until Sarah appears, and takes over.

This is a big red flag for me. Does this mean that Alex is only the POV character for a short while, then the book changes narrators? If so, be wary about tricking your readers. If the novel spends time making readers care about Alex, and then he’s no longer the main character, then why is the novel opening with him? Why not open with Sarah if she’s really the protagonist? What does the story gain by starting with someone who isn’t the protagonist, especially with a first-person POV?

If Alex and Sarah share the book and it alternates or shows both perspectives, then starting with Alex would be fine. Double first person perspectives can be tricky though, so if this is the case, make sure they each POV has a distinct and separate voice so readers can easily tell who’s head they’re in (they won’t always notice or pay attention to the stamp that says who’s who).

(Here’s more on creating voices for your characters)

Either way, it sounds like Alex’s chapters might be setup or a delay before readers get to “the good stuff,” another red flag that the story might not be starting in the right place. Alex’s story and scenes should be compelling and something readers will want to read. If they’re just to kill time until Sarah’s story begins, you might re-think why you have them here.

(Here’s more on knowing where to start your novel)

3. The entire novel is timed, and ends at day 50. Is the first timestamp working?

Yes. Day one is a clear indication that this covers a certain time frame.

This one’s a little hard to diagnose overall, as there’s a lot of information I don’t have to know how this story is structured, and my guesses might be wrong. But based only on this snippet and the questions asked, I worry that the story is starting in the wrong place with the wrong narrator.

Alex’s information is mostly infodump, and I’m not getting a sense of a character with a problem driving the plot, just a guy who’s been through some rough stuff and the author feels readers need to know that before they get to the real story. The background note said he meets Sarah shortly after this (I’m guessing she “lives” in the same building?), so perhaps his goal appears and the story becomes more clear then.

But it’s also possible the story switches to Sarah’s POV when they meet and she takes over (I’m totally guessing here, but that fits what you described). If so, I’d suggest starting there and not using Alex’s POV. If this is basically all readers see of his perspective, odds are they’ll be confused and annoyed that the POV character switched in a few pages. His secret can come out through his relationship with Sarah. Figuring out what happened to Alex and why he’s the way he is could be a strong hook to keep readers invested in the tale.

Sarah seems like a very interesting character (a girl who refuses to stay dead), and I’m intrigued by the relationship these two will have. I can already imagine ways she might help Alex with his potential PTSD and guilt over the boys’ deaths.

I’d suggest looking at who the protagonist and POV character really is here, and where this story actually starts. Who is the character with the problem the book will spend solving? Who has the most to lose? Who has the most at stake? Who is motivated to act? Once that’s clarified, look at whether this is really the right place to start, or if it’s another scene in the story.

(Here’s more on creating a great protagonist)

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

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