Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reading Elimination Tournament – Round 1: Make the Reader Care About Your Character

Another important question to answer within the first five pages:  Why should I care about what happens to this character?  Typically the reader is introduced to the protagonist within the first five pages of the book, and first impressions in fiction, just like in life, are critical in determining if you want to know more about this person.

As a writer, your goal is to get the reader to buy into the character, to love the character as if he/she is a member of her family.  You need to do this with mystery, an interesting situation or a strong emotion. And you need to do it fast.  Throw the character in the middle of a situation or conflict. Show the character in action giving us a hint of what to expect out of the character throughout the rest of the book, and maybe even show us a glimpse of this character’s “fatal flaw.” Pick up your favorite books and read the first five pages again. Does the author establish the character within these pages?  I’m betting that he does. Give it a try.  Post comments about how this worked within your favorite books.

Silicon Follies – Thomas Scoville (2001)

The opening scene of this book is intriguing. I like this image:
 “It was a sea of cubicles. Every twenty yards an oversized potted palm rose up like a desert island, a cluster of a upholstered chairs marooned and huddling at the base. High overhead, box girders braced up a brooding sheet metal sky."

These opening paragraphs establish the setting of the book, a soulless Silicon Valley high-tech company, and we are introduced to Paul, our protagonist, a writer who somehow has found himself in a mind numbing programming job that he hates. Here we go again with another writer protagonist and one that is in a high-tech job that they hate. This sounds all too-familiar to me, and like a winner.  Onto the next round.

The Man of the House – Stephen McCauley (1996)

I bought this book off of the clearance table at Half-Price books for $.50, which might explain why bought it in the first place. The back cover copy is mildly interesting, but yet not so much so that it carries my interest. In the first five pages there isn't much going on. This appears to be another domestic drama without a lot of conflict or action immediately apparent. The character has some interesting insights, but none interesting enough to answer the most important question: Why should I care about this character? Therefore I'm eliminating this book.

Downbelow Station – C. J. Cherryh (1981)

I have no idea how long I’ve owned this book, but it's about time that I decide whether to read it or not. And even though the book does not introduce any characters during the first five pages, the narrative sets up an intriguing situation that I want know more about.  This book already feels like it's ahead of its time so I want to read more. Some books just break all those rules that you establish for them. On to round two.

The Book of Joe – Jonathan Tropper (2004)

I’m a sucker for writer protagonists.  What can I say?  This is a personal bias that you just are going to have to put up with throughout this tournament. So, a writer protagonist (+1), a killer first line:

"Just a few scant months after my mother's suicide, I walked into the garage, looking for my baseball glove, and discovered Cindy Pozner on her knees, animatedly performing fellatio on my older brother, Brad." (+1 for the line, +2 for including allusions to death and sex within the first line)

A jaded author narrator who wrote a best-selling autobiographical book so incendiary, that his entire hometown tried to sue him for libel. (+1 for introducing conflict). And now he must return to that town to deal with his father stroke (+1 for setting up a situation where the character needs to confront this conflict immediately).

In addition, we learn a great deal about the character (+1); that he's having trouble with relationships, that he still loves his high school girlfriend, that he's been a jerk to her, and that he seems to have regrets about what happened with the town. Lots of conflict, a solid narrative voice and killer first line and the arbitrary +7 number equals going to the next round.

Books Eliminated So Far (and available if you want them):
  • 21 – Jeremy Iversen (2005) 
  • Farm Fatale – Wendy Holden (2001)
  • Freezing -- Penelope Evans (1997)
  • Stronghold: Dragonstar Book 1 – Melanie Rawn (1990)
  • Man of the House  Stephen McCauley (1996)
Bonus Books! (because I've finished reading them)
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time Book 6) Robert Jordan (1995)
  • Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time Book 7) Robert Jordan (1997)

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