In the last post, we looked at part of Alyssa’s question. Here’s more: I gave my MC the ability to know if people are lying just by looking into their eyes, and if they are lying, then she can learn the truth. Also, she can understand the cries of infants. I realized that the eye-reading ability I gave her isn't in use much. I might use it three times in one page, then not mention it again for about 20+ pages. The infant-cry-ability isn't used at all.
I've also been thinking about expanding this eye ability. She goes through a lot of complicated stuff, so she ends up hating a lot of people, so I've been thinking about making her able to kill people just by staring at them hard enough/long enough. Does that sound too violent?
Also, she can write really well (mainly because it is my first real attempt to write and publish a complete novel and that is what I know best), so I have her writing a diary. I noticed the same thing with the diary entries. I put them into the story, but they have started becoming less and less frequent.
I have started trying to add these abilities into the stories more and more, but I've almost got 100 pages and I don't see many spots where I can work it in. Do you think I could just revise my story a bunch and make the writing and the eye-reading more common? Or would it be better to just write them out altogether?
I like the diaries. They give more of an insight to my MC's character and thoughts and the effect all of this stuff is having on her, and I have an excuse I can use for her not having written much, but the eye-reading seems like it would be a lot more difficult to fix. I might have an excuse to get rid of that, but I really like her having it.
In Alyssa’s story the ability to recognize a lie is a super power, but in other tales catching a lie by an ordinary MC can come up, as it has for me more than once. Here’s a link to a recent story in The New York Times that sheds light on the subject and reveals how difficult lie-spotting can be: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/science/in-airport-screening-body-language-is-faulted-as-behavior-sleuth.html. The information may be helpful if you write about a sleuth or a liar.
Starting with the fatal-staring ability: I can’t say if that power is too violent, which depends on the story and the writer’s (and reader’s) preferences. But if we want our MC to be likable, we make that harder if she’s staring people to death right and left. Probably can be done; it’s just harder. But if she has a stare that feels lethal to her victims even if they go on breathing, the likability hurdle is lower.
When I introduce a character trait I worry that the reader will forget it and be surprised when it crops up again. I don’t want that moment of surprise, because it takes the reader out of the story for a moment. The solution is to introduce the trait solidly at the start and have it crop up a few times soon after, which generally should be early in our story. Let’s take Alyssa’s MC’s journaling, and let’s call this MC Ophelia. We can describe Ophelia’s diary from her first-person POV, possibly like this: Thick, but no larger than my hand; bound with blue thread, an ancient practice, which connects me to centuries of diarists; covered in plain, anonymous manila upon which I would never write, not even a single mark to identify the diary as mine. The whole book fits neatly into a brick-red cordovan case secured with a silver locking zipper. That zipper, which has never been breached, gives me a measure of security, though I realize the leather wouldn’t withstand a razor.
There. I hope I’ve made this diary distinctive enough to be memorable.
A digression: I googled bookbinding to get ideas for describing the diary and came across the creepy practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, that is binding with human skin, which continued into the nineteenth century. You can look it up. Ew!
After that description, we know the diary is important to Ophelia. Next we show her writing in it. Let’s say we write a scene in which she speaks to the manservant who attends the crown prince. As soon as the manservant goes off to perform some duty, Ophelia pulls out her diary to record their conversation as well as her thoughts about what was said. She keeps writing when a servant with a broom sweeps by, but as soon as the Countess enters the corridor, Ophelia tucks the diary in her pocket. The Countess says something or does something and passes on. Out comes the diary again, and this time the reader is shown what Ophelia wrote, which includes the conversation with the manservant and whatever happened with the Countess. The reader understands by this that Ophelia is devoted to keeping a record of events and that she probably has an important reason for doing so. After that, we don’t need to show the diary whenever something happens. The reader will assume that diary writing is going on. We do have to reintroduce it occasionally so the reader remembers, but not that often. If the diary comes into the plot directly–for instance, if it’s discovered by a possible enemy–so much the better. But it doesn’t have to actually be discovered. The reader will worry if he’s led to fear discovery. If we can make him scream internally, Put that diary away, Ophelia! Now! Hurry! then we’ve done a good job.
And making the reader worry leads me to plot. The character traits Alyssa mentions (or any character traits) will remain present for the reader and will recur naturally in the narration if they figure into our MC’s struggle. They’ll also crop up for us most readily if we see a role for them in our story. We can see this role ahead of time if we’re the kind of writer who plans her story. If we don’t plan and we plunk in a trait because we think it’s cool, because we think it will make our character more layered, then we have to keep it mind as we keep writing. We have to look for ways to work it into our story line. For example, I made Ella clumsy at the beginning of Ella Enchanted without any forethought, but the trait becomes one of her obstacles in finishing school.
If a trait turns out not to do much for the plot, we can certainly cut it in revision. I’ve done that.
Back to Ophelia’s lie-detecting ability. It may be fine–unless this skill makes things too easy for her. If she can see through the deception that threatens her safety or her happiness, then her problem collapses. So we have to watch out when we give our characters super powers.
Here are three prompts:
• Let’s use Ophelia’s lie-detection. She attends the coronation of the new king. One courtier after the other steps up to swear loyalty to the new ruler, but Ophelia realizes that three of them are lying. Write the scene and what comes next.
• Ophelia writes the names of the false courtiers in her diary, along with her suspicions about them. Write the scene in which the diary falls into the wrong hands.
• Or, closer to home, she hears her parents tell her older brother about the day he took his first steps and understands that the entire story is a lie. Write what happens next.
Have fun, and save what you write!