Giving Readers a Baseline

by, Alex Yuschik

I don’t know where you are, but over here it’s really hot. So in honor of the massive heat wave my poor city is going through, I am going to talk about the fine winter traditions of Cincinnati and how one of them can help you break out of slush.

When I read over the first ten or fifty pages in a manuscript, I need to get grounded in the world and characters while the plot keeps the action revving along. To give us a good idea of how much the characters change in your manuscript, you need to show your reader the characters before they start changing. Maybe this sounds like common sense, but it’s tricky to do.  It boils down to: don’t tell us how they normally were and show us them acting differently– show your characters acting like they normally do.

But whoa hold up, Yuschik,  someone is probably saying, didn’t you just tell me that things need to be different on the first day of my manuscript? And now you’re telling me I need to keep them the same? Objection! *points dramatically, Phoenix Wright style*

Okay, let me explain. Last time I was here, I talked about starting on the day things are different. What I’m saying today is that you need to recognize that while the times, they are a-changin’, your characters haven’t learned to change with them yet. At the start, your characters are people with strengths and weaknesses, one weakness in particular that over the course of this story they’ll conquer (or ultimately fail to conquer if it’s a tragedy).

It’s really tempting (and by really tempting, I mean I noticed I did this when I was revising my own ms yesterday) to introduce a character by telling the reader something them and then showing them doing something totally different.

We want to get to the fun stuff, right? And the stuff that’s fun is to show a rock-solid guy slowly crumbling under the weight of his loss or an emotionally distant person learning to trust. But what makes it a believable change is having a baseline to compare your character against, aka, before and after shots.

A Christmas Carol is a big deal in Cincinnati during the winter. Some cities do the Nutcracker, others have massive winter parades that form the highlight of the winter season (Pittsburgh does this cool one called Light-Up Night), but for whatever reason going to see Dickens’ work as a play is a big social to-do during December in Porkopolis.

We all know the story: Scrooge is a really terrible guy who gets chased around by these ghosts for the sake of saving his immortal soul. He actually becomes not that bad a dude by the end, but only after he’s been scared crapless by the ghosts and is forced to confront his mistakes. Character development! How do we know Scrooge is a terrible guy? We get shown it! He kicks holiday revelers out, he yells at Bob Cratchit for using coal, he sends away charity people, the works. Dickens makes sure that by the time Scrooge goes to bed, everybody knows he’s bad news.

Dickens’ story starts on the day things are different– you know, when three ghosts launch themselves into Scrooge’s life– but it shows Scrooge before he changes. It gives the reader the baseline of how this man acts normally. If you have a character who’s the most reliable person on earth, don’t start with them deciding not to deliver a package because they don’t feel like it– show them pulling out all the stops like a one-person UPS. A reader just isn’t going to believe you when you say that your protagonist is usually one way and then you show them acting different without also showing the change that inspired it. And you want your readers to believe you.

In short: Establish your characters in their starting states before changing them. Introduce us to Magikarp before you start gunning for Gyarados. We need to know who your characters are before they’re moved to change. It makes the transformation from start to finish more believable and also helps your reader to connect with them more. (Because honestly, who in their lives hasn’t once felt like that sad little fish?) The reason why your character-karp unleashing a metaphorical Hyper Beam on their Elite Four is so impressive/emotionally moving isn’t because they leveled up enough to learn Hyper Beam. It’s because you’ve seen them at their worst and at their weakest, and that’s just not who they are anymore.

Alex Yuschik can be found on Twitter @alexyuschik.

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