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Maloideae: the game of strained but learned analogies >

[Comments] (2) Breaking Character: You probably know by now that I'm writing another novel. (Current word count: 33k.) I wrote Constellation Games almost entirely in secret, but after I sold it I got a lot more open about the revision process. For this one I want to talk about the writing process (since that's a big part of what's in my head right now) but I don't want to just blab about all my fabulous ideas and how great this book is gonna be. My plan is to strike a balance with occasional posts as I discover new things about craft. Today: stock characters.

The new novel covers a lot more ground than Constellation Games, and because there's a whole lot of people who only show up in one scene I'm making much heavier use of stock characters. I never paid much attention to stock characters because... you're not supposed to. They move the plot forward and they go away. You're not even supposed to have them in short stories, because word count is so precious. But now that I'm writing a lot of them I've discovered something interesting. With one line of dialogue you can break the stock-ness of a stock character, in a way that serves a larger story purpose.

An example of a stock character in Constellation Games: the goldbricking rules lawyer running the BEA counter in chapter 18. What a jerk. But imagine if during his one scene, he had had one line of dialogue expressing curiosity about what Curic is like. This guy works for the BEA, his whole job is passing messages between humans and ETs, but he's never talked to an ET himself and never will. He's still a jerk, but now he's a sympathetic jerk, like Ariel.

I didn't do this because a) I didn't think of it, and b) I accomplished that story purpose earlier, when Krakowski bitches about not having the same clearance to visit Ring City as the people it's his job to monitor. But one line of dialogue could have turned the stock character into something more closely resembling a real person.

In the new novel I needed a scene with one of those stuffy Starfleet admirals who are always chewing out Captain Picard in ST:TNG. So I wrote this stock character and he started chewing out one of the main characters, but then something odd happened:

Stuffy admiral: Why didn't you do [plot-specific detail]?

Main character: [Plot-specific explanation.] It would have been suicide, sir.

Stuffy admiral: Our analysis agrees with you. But you're discounting a long service tradition of glorious suicide.

I was not expecting to write that, but I like it. This guy still has a stick up his ass, but now he also has a sense of irony and he's willing to let it show. It's not something you'd get in ST:TNG, but I could imagine Admiral Kirk saying that to, say, a Captain Chekhov. With that line, not only does the admiral stop being a total stock character, but his willingness to talk that way to his subordinate says something about their relationship. A conversation that might have only advanced the plot now also develops one of the main characters.

This is the first draft, so there's no guarantee that line or that scene will make it into the completed novel, but now that I've seen how that works I'm trying to do something similar with all the one-shot stock characters. Maybe I'll overdo it, who knows. I'll also be looking to see if/how other writers do this.

I think this technique might only work in a comedy. Even when the stock-breaking bit isn't a joke, it's a surprise that works like a joke. It gives you that wait a minute... feeling.

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Posted by Jeanne at Wed Sep 05 2012 23:25

I totally don't think it only works in comedy; I think it's actually vital to use it Not In Comedy. Dramatic moments that happen in life don't feel like dramatic moments that happen in Stories because of that existential-horror quality to life; the sense that the variables going into any given situation are more complex than you can quite get a handle on, and that the sincerity of any moment works more in retrospect than in the moment. I think David Foster Wallace's talk about the meaning of "Lynchian" in David Lynch movies isn't exactly this but it's related to this. Walter Koenig's (great) Star Trek cash-in biography also.

A favorite example of this in comedy, tho, from Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union": the detective, Landsman, is talking to the stock curmudgeonly manager of the hotel where The Body is Found about how important it is for everyone to have a dream. Manager: "It's the same for me. Being the night manager in a crap-ass hotel."

Posted by Caleb Wilson at Fri Sep 07 2012 12:32

There's a great example of this in the movie "In Bruges", where a Belgian gun dealer who has only plot (and no emotional) connection to the story develops an obsession in his two scenes with the word 'alcoves,' wondering whether 'nooks and crannies' might be more accurate in English, etc. Without his 'alcoves' he'd be an entirely forgettable character.


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