From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, April 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Protagonist Sympathetic?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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 we 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: Three


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 28.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the transition work?

2. Is my protagonist unsympathetic?

3. Is the setting clear? I'm trying to show this story is set in the UK and that football=soccer not American football.

4. Will readers expect the brother in jail to turn up at some point? This isn't planned and is character background on Chardonnay as she is the antagonist.


Market/Genre: Gay Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

SLAP! A flash of red and my cheek stung

"I told you never to talk about my brother," said Chardonnay, "darling.”

"In jail," I mouthed. For armed robbery

The planner gasped before plastering on her best fake smile, "Guest lists can be so tricky. What I always say is listen to your heart and you’ll know who to invite."

She shuffled her papers, "Perhaps we should talk about the flowers again. What do you think Luke?"

"I think we should stick with something simple and traditional like roses"

"You know full well that roses don't fit the theme," said Chardonnay. "We need black and white flowers to match the inflatable footballs."

"Really? When we went to Barry's wedding he didn't have giant inflatable calculators."

"Barry wasn't getting a double page spread in Ciao Magazine."

Chardonnay turned back to the planner. "We need something more."

"Well one thing that is becoming so popular in the States right now is to have perfume dispensers gently misting over the guests so that all the ladies can smell like the bride."

And gas the room out

"You can't do that," I said. "What about people with allergies?"

Chardonnay sighed. "Can't you just be helpful for once? You know sometimes I think you don't want to get married."

She was right. I didn't want to get married.

"She even suggested making the vicar dress up like a referee. Can you believe it?"

"That's brides for you," said Johnny. "Give her some slack. It's her special day."

My Thoughts in Purple:

SLAP! [using a ‘sound effect’ word (whap!) would be better] A flash of red and my cheek stung [the 1st phrase isn’t defined, so we don’t know what it refers to…]

"I told you never to talk about my brother," said Chardonnay, "darling.”

"In jail," I mouthed. For armed robbery [this would be stronger as internal thought, establishing that the character doesn’t want to ‘backtalk’ & risk getting slapped again]

The planner [a jolt to assimilate into the story on 1st read] gasped before plastering on her best fake smile. "Guest lists [this allows the reader to (most likely) pin ‘wedding’ to planner] can be so tricky. What I always say is listen to your heart and you’ll know who to invite."She [moving this up a line to this position keeps the continued dialogue easier to follow] shuffled her papers, [a more wedding-specific term could further build on identifying what is going on here, like brochures, catalogues, notebooks, portfolios] "Perhaps we should talk about the flowers again. What do you think Luke?" [This could use some stage direction to cement who Luke is (the slappee) or internal thought before the dialogue. This is on the verge of assumption of reader knowledge about the protagonist.]

"I think we should stick with something simple and traditional like roses" [need to show who is speaking here, not only to establish it’s Luke, but the POV as well]

"You know full well that roses don't fit the theme," said Chardonnay. "We need black and white flowers to match the inflatable footballs."

"Really? When we went to Barry's wedding [what do Barry & calculators have in common? Let the reader in on the point – also, are the footballs referencing the groom, was Barry the groom? The theme is referenced, who picked(s) the theme?] he didn't have giant inflatable calculators."

"Barry wasn't getting a double page spread in Ciao Magazine."

Chardonnay turned back [this character wasn’t shown turning away or to anyone previously] to the planner. "We need something more."

[the speaker needs to be established, even though the fact is pointed to, either at the front or back end of the dialogue – the planner can strike a pose, look away from her scattered materials, etc.] "Well, one thing that is becoming so popular in the States right now is to have perfume dispensers gently misting over the guests so that all the ladies can smell like the bride."

And gas the room out

"You can't do that," I said. "What about people with allergies?"

Chardonnay sighed. "Can't you just be helpful for once? You know sometimes I think you don't want to get married."

She was right. I didn't want to get married. [this cements sympathy for this character, heightens the feeling that the wedding might be under ‘duress’ connected with Chardonnay]

* * *
--"She even suggested making the vicar dress up like a referee. Can you believe it?"

"That's brides for you," said Johnny. "Give her some slack. It's her special day."--

The questions:

1. Does the transition work?

I do not see the last two lines as a transition to a new scene or from the current scene. It appears to be a continuation of the group discussion in this scene, with a new character, Johnny entering into the conversation. Are these the first lines of the next paragraph, opening a new scene where the groom is involved in a similar gathering, but with a different twist? If so, these lines are ‘transitions’. You would simply define the break to another scene with extra blank lines or symbols (*** ### ~~~).

Transitions can hint, lead, or shove the reader toward the next scene. It all depends on what’s happening and what you’re building toward. Some transitions need to amp up the intensity, while others are like down-shifting into a lower, slower gear. The most effective feel like a natural re-orientation of thoughts, expectations, and emotions.

(Here's more on writing transitions)

2. Is my protagonist unsympathetic?

I’m assuming the protagonist is the character who was slapped, injects the info about the jailed brother, has concerns about guest allergies, and doesn’t want to get married? I felt the character was in a situation they were tolerating, which allowed me to feel slightly sympathetic toward them. And being slapped in the face punctuates that the circumstances aren’t the friendliest.

If you wanting to show your protagonist as someone the reader would have a sympathetic view toward, I believe you’ve accomplished that end. As mentioned, assaulting the bride sets the tone, and the statement that Luke doesn’t want to get married seals it.

(Here's more on writing likable characters)

3. Is the setting clear? I'm trying to show this story is set in the UK and that football=soccer, not American football.

The situation is fairly clear. The setting is not.

The black-and-white football reference will help readers imagine England – if the reader is informed/familiar with soccer. What establishes that the scene isn’t playing out in America is the planner speaking of the new perfume-spritzing effect that’s so popular in the States.

If you truly want the reader to be grounded in the UK location, then be plain about it and reference a well-known city. Boom – setting established. Dance around and hint only when it promotes the story agenda, and the reader has a solid foundation and bond with the story.

There are numerous small ways to implicate the UK, the first being mention of a city, such as metric measurements, Brit slang words, comparisons to other countries (disparaging or not).

(Here's more on how much do you need to describe your setting)

4. Will readers expect the brother in jail to turn up at some point? This isn't planned and is character background on Chardonnay, as she is the antagonist.

No. This feels/reads like incidental information that would be attached to Chardonnay. But, I believe readers will expect to be told why he can’t be mentioned and will be curious as to why Chardonnay’s reaction was violent.

There is no indication why Chardonnay is at this planning session, what the relationship between Chardonnay and Luke have, or who Johnny is. This lack of knowledge has the reader moving forward solely on the faith that more solid info is on the very-next-page.

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.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

3 comments:

  1. You seem to want this to be startling, and Chardonnay certainly is. But it's hard to appreciate, when we can't see which side of the real story this relates to-- since the sample ends before you show much of that.

    I really want this to have more pointers about what the scene means, and I wonder if they need to be here at the start. Is Chardonnay Luke's bride (a horrifying thought, but she's in the planning and you don't say what else she might be)? Does Luke's "don't want to get married" mean he sees the whole relationship as a mistake or just that he'd be happier without rings? And also, what kind of person is Luke, if our first glimpse of him is here surrounded by weirdness? I suppose he seems sensible (nixing the perfume idea) and tolerant, but we don't really know if he's sympathetic because there's almost no focus on him. If anything, so far the story is under way to being villain-centered.

    --Meanwhile if this actually is Luke and Chardonnay getting married, it's hard to feel any sympathy for Luke. He's marrying a woman who starts the scene by abusing him without a thought, and he doesn't have the level of horror he ought to.

    Most of this scene's purpose probably won't happen until the part that was just starting, when we see what it means. Some of the above points might need to be clearer from the start so we can orient to them immediately, but some might be fine to delay because the scene is short and you're about to catch us up; it's hard to say. It's a jarring way to begin, but it is fun, and a sense of craziness (and then grounding it? or not?) might be just what you're going for.

    The transition: I've seen writers try shifting scenes without the ***-type marker Maria recommends, and it's almost guaranteed to confuse the reader. In this case, I think you *might* get away with a transition of just the dashes and no extra line marker:

    She was right. I didn't want to get married.
    --"She even suggested..."

    although if that was your only transition you'd have to be triply clear in the next couple of lines where the new scene was set (for all we know it's ten years later) and especially what characters are there now. An ordinary new scene needs all that too, but this re-orienting would need to be much clearer if the shift itself didn't have the full ***-line marker. And that full marker might still be safer.

    The real test of a scene like this is how it works when readers get from it to the next scene. You're given this a lot of energy, so I hope you make sure it comes together the way you want.

    ReplyDelete
  2. For me, Chardonnay was too over the top, too mustache twirling villain right from the start. I don't understand why Luke puts up with her, let alone is marrying her. Nor do I understand why she's with him when he pretty clearly despises her. If the next scene could believably answer those questions, I would read more.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sorry for the delayed reply but thank you very much to Maria, Ken and "anonymous" for reviewing this. It has given me lots of food for thought. I think perhaps by trying to avoid telling, I have not made it clear enough in a few spots and I think maybe I also need to dial back the conflict a notch (no moustache twirling)

    Thanks again

    ReplyDelete