Saturday, January 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Character Introduction Work?

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.

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This week’s questions:

1. Is this a good character introduction scene for Kaden?

2. Do you get a good sense of Kaden’s relationship with his father? It’s supposed to be bitter and resentful due to Kaden being the “disappointing” child.

3. Have I made any mistakes with the first person present tense? Is it distracting?


Market/Genre: Psychological thriller

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The following snippet is the opening of the third chapter of my work-in-progress. The story is told from two points of view (Henry and Kaden, who are step brothers); this is the first scene from Kaden's point of view, though he was mentioned in chapter two. The setting is medieval era and Kaden and his father are nobles so inheritance is a big deal.

It’s always bad when Father asks to speak with me: either I’ve done something wrong or didn’t do it well enough. Regardless, I’ve never ignored the summons, like a good son.

I knock at his study door and wait.

“Enter,” Father calls from inside.

I go in. Father sits at his desk reading a thick tome by the light of the moon. The windows are wide open; a gentle breeze rolls in. The room is dark except for Father and his desk. I sit in one of the chairs opposite him and wait.

Father snaps the book closed and looks me up and down. “Military life suits you.”

“Yes, well, that’s why I chose it,” I reply, trying not to glare.

“I don’t recognize that uniform. Did you get a promotion?”

“A few months ago.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

I scowl. Does he really need to ask? “Why did you want to see me, Father?”

Father sighs and leans back in his chair, twiddling his thumbs. After a few moments, he says, “I’m dying, Kaden.”

My eyes snap to meet his. “What?”

Father nods gravely. “It’s called chronic bronchitis. Apparently I’ve had it for many years.”

I gulp and try to compose myself. “How long do you have?”

Father shrugs. “The physician was vague. It could be a few years or a few weeks; maybe even a decade if I’m lucky.”

I grimace; this “physician” didn’t even have the courtesy to give a narrow timeframe. Sounds like something Henry would do. “Is there any way I can help?”

“No, I called you here because I’m putting my affairs in order so that there are no disputes after I pass and I have some news for you on that front.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

It’s always bad when Father asks to speak with me: either I’ve done something wrong or didn’t do it well enough. Regardless, I’ve [never ignored] tiny thing, but this feels off when combined with “like a good son,” as it feels like, “I never do this like a good son.” Perhaps shift it to “I heed the summons like a good son?” the summons, like a good son.

I knock at his study door and wait.

“Enter,” Father calls from inside.

I go in. Father sits at his desk reading a thick tome by the [light of the moon.] not sure moons can be bright enough to read The windows are wide open; a gentle breeze rolls in. The room is dark except for Father and his desk. I sit in one of the chairs opposite him and wait. I wanted a little thought or something from him here to show what he expects

Father snaps the book closed and looks me up and down. “Military life suits you.” Tiny thing, but if the room is dark, he won’t be able to see him well.

“Yes, well, that’s why I chose it,” I reply, [trying not to glare.] Since he’s trying to be “a good son,” perhaps shift this more in what he’s doing than not doing? Such as, he’s showing whatever emotion or face he think his father would want to see, but inside he feels another way. A suggestion or hint about why he chose the military could also be nice if it fits.

“I don’t recognize that uniform. Did you get a promotion?”

“A few months ago.”

[“Why didn’t you tell me?”

I scowl. Does he really need to ask?
] I like this, as it shows me there’s a problem, but it just teases it, creating mystery and tension “Why did you want to see me, Father?”

Father sighs and leans back in his chair, [twiddling his thumbs] is this a medieval phrase?. After a few moments, he says, “I’m dying, Kaden.”

My eyes snap to meet his. “What?”

Father nods gravely. “It’s called chronic bronchitis. Apparently I’ve had it for many years.”

I gulp and [try to compose myself.] I’m curious how he feels here, as he could be either happy, sad, or conflicted “How long do you have?”

Father shrugs. “The physician was vague. It could be a few years or a few weeks; [maybe even a decade] this felt off to me, since if it’s that long there’s no urgency to act if I’m lucky.”

I grimace; this “physician” didn’t even have the courtesy to give a [narrow timeframe] also feels anachronistic. Sounds like something Henry would do. [“Is there any way I can help?”] I’m curious how he feels here. Is this a sincere offer or is he playing his role?

“No, I called you here because I’m putting my affairs in order so that there are no disputes after I pass and I have some news for you on that front.”

The questions:

1. Is this a good character introduction scene for Kaden?

Without knowing the rest of the story, it feels like it. It offers a scene with conflict, shows his life and issues with his father, and gives him an opportunity to tell his “side of the story” to readers by what he thinks and says. I wanted a little more of his thoughts to see that, and you have a few potential spots to add those if you wanted.

(Here’s more on writing first-person internalization)

2. Do you get a good sense of Kaden’s relationship with his father? It’s supposed to be bitter and resentful due to Kaden being the “disappointing” child.

Not quite yet, because I’m not sure where he stands or how he feels about his father. There’s clearly animosity here, but bitter and resentful isn’t coming through. He seems to care about his father being sick, but there’s not enough internal thought to let me know if that’s an act, or if his concern lies elsewhere, as with the inheritance.

I’d suggest adding a few lines of internalization to show his bitterness and resentment and make it clearer how he feels about this announcement. Is he happy about his father being sick? Sad? Conflicted? Worried about his brother? He’s keeping all his emotions in so I can’t tell how he feels about any of this. I suspect what’s in your head isn’t making it to the page yet, so you read the emotional clues here correctly. But they’re a little vague for someone who doesn’t know the history of these characters. Tweak a little for clarity, and they’ll work.

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

3. Have I made any mistakes with the first person present tense? Is it distracting?

No, it read fine to me. There were a few words and phrases that felt anachronistic to me, but I don’t know the medieval time period well enough to know if that’s true or not. There was also a bit of a lighting issue with the dark room and reading by moonlight. I don’t think they’d be able to see well enough to either read or notice a new uniform in a dark room. You might consider adding another light source.

Overall, I think a few lines of internalization will get this where you want it. The situation is good to show his true feelings, he just isn’t doing it yet. It pretty much works, but could use a little tweaking to hit the emotions you’re aiming for.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. I think it's quite an interesting paasage and I would be interested to know what the news is at the end.

    My main comment is that it feels like a modern work that has been shoehorned into a mediaeval setting. Maybe you could re-set it to modern times? As it is there are a few things that jar:

    - as Janice says, light would be poor (candlelight)
    - the promotion thing makes me think of a modern army. In the mediaeval period there were no standing armies and kings were reliant on calling up their vassals to fight wars.
    - Bronchitis wasn't discovered until the 1800s and I doubt any mediaeval physician could give such a firm diagnosis.
    - I'm not sure the father would need to put this affairs in order as it was generally primogeniture in those days (at least in England)

    My advice is, if you are determined to go mediaeval, then read lots and lots about the period. Hope this helps!

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  2. I enjoyed this extract. It left me with questions I want answers to. If this is indeed historical setting rather than historically inspired fantasy then I agree with previous comments. While it is possible to read by moonlight (a full moon shining in directly through a window you are sitting next to) chances are a window that big in a castle would make no defensive sense. Check out BBC History's website for a mountain of info about Medieval life.

    'Twiddling his thumbs' really jarred me. Not so much the expression itself but the fact Kaden's Father didn't seem the twiddling type! (I could be wrong about this.)

    There were certainly a few instances where inheritance didn't for some reason pass Father to Son (questions about paternity being the most obvious) so it really piqued my curiosity that this was mentioned.

    I'd look forward to finding out more about the story and characters :)

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  3. I agree with all the proceeding comments. The biggest issue for me was that it lacked a medieval feel. The circumstances, actions, and dialog all said "modern day."

    While I did sense the tension present in Kaden, there was nothing in the father's dialog that hinted at his "disappointment." Perhaps that comes later or is setup earlier.

    I'd also prefer a little less "stage direction," or have it blended a bit more into the narration. "I go in," close on the heels of knocking and waiting became a stiffly uttered distraction. I realize some is necessary, but it can be incorporated more smoothly, especially if related more to the character. For instance, "I go in" can become "Inside, I..." Instead of waiting at the door he can share his thoughts. How many times has he stood there waiting? How long are the waits? Do they bother him? Does he remember one instance in particular? A single comment would do a lot.

    All that said, there's real tension in the scene and Kaden is an intriguing character. Good luck with your revisions.

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  4. Thank you all for the comments and suggestions. I really need to work on properly integrating setting and story.

    ReplyDelete