Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Character Identification

I am not feeling very clever today, having spent an entire cruise to the Bahamas (for my son-in-law's 50th birthday) in my cabin, accompanied solely by my Kindle. Sigh. Some unknown malady struck me down just as we were leaving Longwood, but I was certain it would go away. It didn't. So there I was, feeling too miserable to even edit the chapters of Royal Rebellion I brought with me. Fortunately, the ship (just 2 weeks into a new run from Palm Beach to Freeport) was excellent, the food to match, the weather perfect, and I enjoyed the trip vicariously from my daughter's photos. Including her tale of being propositioned by a would-be gigolo in broad daylight while shell-hunting on the beach! 

I've been back 48 hours now, but I confess to composing an "easy" blog this week! Below the photos I will make an effort to demonstrate something I've touched on in the past but which needs repeating as, time and time again, when I judge contests or edit other people's work, I have to write: "Identify, identify, identify!"

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Just before we left on our cruise, we enjoyed seeing Hailey play several different parts in Mary Poppins. She soloed as Birdwoman (below). Wore a pretty gown in several London street scenes. And tap-danced as a chimney-sweep.

Susie's photos from our Paradise Classica cruise:

Mike & Susie with West Palm Beach in the background

Mike & Susie in Freeport, Bahamas
Susie has several walls of her house decorated with framed flower photos, sand and seashells from every beach we've ever been to, including our old home on Long Island Sound in Connecticut. These will be the newest additions:

On a beach that was disappointingly shell-free, she finally stumbled on this. A true Wow!

Much fatter & more 3-D than U.S. Sand Dollars
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I am a great advocate of using Names—not just first names but Last Names, Middle Names, Titles, the names of Places & Things—when writing Fiction. If you'd like to see what I've written on this subject before, please see Archives, 3/18/17. Basically, I consider Names a vital part of Character Development. And yet, so often I find this message simply doesn't get through to newbies to the art of writing. For example: 
All too frequently in contests I judge, I find authors beginning a manuscript talking about, say, someone named Rafe. Rafe does this, Rafe thinks that, but not until maybe page 15 or later comes the grand revelation that he is Rafael, Duke of Baringham! Oh wow! In Regency culture, almost no one, with the possible exception of a mother or wife in a private moment, would ever think of him as anything but Baringham. Readers have gone all those pages without a clue to his identity! BAD. Don't do it! 

Cardinal Rule: Unless your opening demands otherwise, always give your characters full names and some other form of identification when they are introduced. And then repeat that name in one form or another so he/she comes alive in the readers' heads and allows them to empathize with him/her. Do NOT say the name once then switch to he/she, him/her! For our duke, you could alter the way you refer to him by using: "The duke" or "His Grace" or "Baringham," using "he" only when there is absolutely no doubt about who "he" is.

Grace Note: All book quotes below were intended to be in Times New Roman, but Blogger keeps switching some back to Helvetica. Sorry about that.

Here are the opening lines of The Lady Takes a Risk. In this short paragraph Lady Amelie is introduced with her full name, we learn she is the daughter of the Duke of Wentworth and that she is having romantic difficulties. Her name, either as Lady Amelie or Amelie, is repeated at least twenty more times in the course of the first chapter. By the end of the chapter readers should have her fixed firmly in their mind and, hopefully, will be sympathetic with her problems.

It is not easy to be the daughter of a despot duke. For that matter, Lady Amelie Sherbrooke was forced to concede, there were likely earls, barons, tavern-keepers, farmers, soldiers, sailors, tinkers, and tailors whose daughters considered them quite as despotic as the Duke of Wentworth. Which did her no good at all. Misery might love company, but as for finding a way to prevent her betrothal to most the most pretentious, fatuous, unbearable idiot in the ton . . .
Here is the introduction of the hero near the end of Chapter 1. In this brief introduction, readers are left in no doubt about who he is and little doubt about what kind of man he is. We know his full name, his rank, and his regiment. Ah! An officer and a gentleman.
(FYI, the "earl" is the Earl of Penhurst, her father's candidate for fiancé.)

    “May I be of assistance, Lady Amelie?”
   As the smooth baritone voice penetrated the darkness, the two figures on the marble bench froze.       
   “Go away,” the earl declared. “Your presence is not wanted.”
   Amelie weighed the horror of being compromised into marriage with the earl against her need to escape him, and seized the lesser of two evils. Standing, she said to the dark silhouette of a man, “If you would be kind of enough to escort me back to the house?”
   “I say!” Penhurst protested. “The lady is my fiancĂ©e—” He broke off as the tall shadow approached, a recognizable face materializing out of the night. “Trevor! This is none of your business, Colonel. Kindly take yourself off.”
   Colonel Marcus Trevor, lately of the 10th Hussars, ignored him. “Lady Amelie?” He offered his arm.
   Gratefully, she linked her arm with his and set off for the house, leaving the Earl of Penhurst sputtering behind them. 

In The Blackthorne Curse, it takes a bit longer to get to the heroine's name—lesser characters get full-named first, but I believe the opening has enough information not to confuse readers before Abigail is revealed in full. (It's harder to work in the heroine's name when writing in First Person!)

New Haven, Connecticut, February 1816
   Thump. Thump. Thump. The brass knocker on the front door of the snug little house just north of the New Haven Green sounded my doom—Fate knocking at my door in the form of the Reverend Silas Maltby and his wife. I knew because I had peeked out the window minutes earlier and seen them advancing up Church Street, two upright figures marching through a dusting of snow, their cloaks—one black, one gray—billowing about them in a brisk west wind. The overcast skies echoed their drab garments, yet the righteousness of the Lord shimmered about them with every step.
Sadly, I was not pleased with the Lord. Not since he took my Papa from me. Half a year before his fortieth birthday.
   So after my glimpse of the inexorable approach of the Maltbys, I fled to the kitchen, huddling on a three-legged stool in front of the dancing flames in the granite fireplace, where a black teakettle hung from the hob. Papa would have chided me—gently— for being a coward, but he was no longer here.     
    Just as this white clapboard house, the only home I had ever known, was no longer mine.
   As, it seemed possible, the fledgling United States of America might no longer be mine.
   “Miss Abigail? Reverend Maltby and the missus are here.” Our long-time housekeeper, Prudence Cogswell, stood in the kitchen door. “You cannot keep them waiting, Miss Abby. They have only your best interests in mind.”
   Though I could hear a modicum of sympathy in her voice, my shoulders hunched, my head dipped lower. “I don’t care!” I cried.
   Papa’s voice, crying “Shame, shame” echoed through my head. I winced, curling myself into an even tighter ball.
   “Abigail Blackthorne, you are no longer a child. You cannot afford to be. Time to grow up and take your place in the world. Your father would expect you to hold your head high and face what you must. The dead are gone. The living must survive as best they can.”

This opening to Brides of Falconfell also takes a little longer to get to the heroine's full name, but again, that is typical of a book written in First Person.

   “How dare she?”
    Accustomed as I was to my sister Cressida’s gasps of outrage over any action which deviated from what she thought proper, I did not even look up from mending the flounce on my second-best petticoat.
   “Such effrontery! Poor little Edmund but a babe of three months, and she thinks to steal you away from me.”
   At that, I straightened, crumpling my stitching in my lap. “May I inquire who has put you in such a pet, and over what?”
   “Our dear cousin Tess,” Cressida informed me with considerable venom. “It seems her mother’s health is not all it should be, and she has taken it into her head that you might care for a change of scenery. Imagine her putting it like that when ’tis obvious she wishes you to take over the burden of her mother’s care.” My sister punctuated her words with a huff of disgust.
   “If she wishes my help, I would think she might have written to me,” I returned in as mild a tone as I could manage, not wishing to encourage Cressida’s indignation, which could rise to theatrical heights.
   “She knows quite well how much I need you here at Laytham Hall. I daresay she wishes to turn me up sweet before daring to approach you.”
   Myriad thoughts chased through my head, jostling, shoving, trampling each other, as I fought to keep them contained, to keep them from reflecting on my face. The simple truth was that I, Serena Emilia Farnborough, was sitting in the drawing room of my sister’s home in Wiltshire, where I had resided off and on since I refused a second Season as London’s most neglected wallflower and declared my intention of living out my life as no more than aunt to the children of my two brothers and my sister. I had not expected to end up the family nurse, summoned from house to house for birthings and dyings, with many a serious illness between those moments of joy and sorrow. But that is what I had become, with no one to blame but myself. 

And here's the opening to Sorcerer's Bride, Book 2 of my Blue Moon Rising series. Note that in the first six or seven lines readers are told not only who Jagan is but where he is, and given an idea of the problem he faces.

Blue Moon
   How had he gotten himself into such a fydding mess?
   Jagan Mondragon, Sorcerer Prime of the planet Psyclid, stood at a high window in the Round Tower at Veranelle—once the summer retreat of the royal family—and scowled at the glowing orb of his home planet hanging low in the night sky. A few hours ago he had been down there, witnessing without protest his betrothed’s marriage to the leader of a hopeless rebellion. There she was, his woman, smiling, turning up her face to be kissed by a fydding Reg.  

And in Steeplechase, a Trad Regency written long ago but which keeps right on selling, it is again the hero who is introduced first. We learn his name, his friend's name, where they are, and what his problem is in the first two paragraphs.

   “That’s the lot of them,” Mr. Adrian Chumley declared, scanning a scrawled list of names lying on the scarred table beneath his fingertips. He jabbed his quill into the inkpot provided by the landlord of the George Inn and shook his head. “If none of the chits will do, Davenham, you will simply have to stagger along on the income from Chesterton until Marchmont shuffles off this mortal coil.”
   Harlan Dawnay, Viscount Davenham, raised his dark head from his hands long enough to skewer his friend with a pair of blue eyes a susceptible society matron had once pronounced a lethal weapon. “We will leave my father out of this discussion, if you please. Not his fault my Aunt Portia’s an old Tartar.” 

You've probably been told not to ply readers with backstory at the beginning of a book, but it is absolutely essential you give them enough information to begin building a rapport with your characters. You want readers to know who your characters are (both in temperament and position), what their problems are, and how they feel about the world they're in and the people they know. Calling your main characters, even your secondary characters, by nothing more than their first names, ignoring their background, ignoring descriptions of both people and setting, makes your characters "ghosts." Blank faces against a blank canvas. Nonentities with whom your readers cannot build empathy. Don't do it! Give them full names, tell us who they are, and if possible, give at least a hint of what their problem is. And do it as soon as each character is introduced, particularly your main characters. 

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Next week: Misused pronouns (an offshoot of Lack of Identification)

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For a link to Blair Bancroft's web site, click here.

For a link to Blair's Facebook Author Page,  click here.

To request a brochure from Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, please use the link to Blair's website above.  

Thanks for stopping by, Grace


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