Tag Archives: The Charlatan’s Boy

The First Five Pages

Some time ago, I addressed the subject of starting a novel in a post by the extraordinarily original title “How To Start A Novel.” 😉 In that piece, I made the case for beginning a story with an engaging character who wants something and with a clearly defined antagonist who will be the chief cause of things that thwart the character from reaching his desired end.

Scarlet wants Ashley, who becomes engaged to Melanie (Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale that took his leg, but Moby Dick continues to elude him (Moby Dick by Herman Melville). Grady wants to be loved, but Floyd, his father figure, ignores him, uses him, and betrays him (The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers).

With those key components, a story is about to happen. But how to start?

I’ve wrestled with this topic in my own writing. One piece of advice I embraced is that the opening of a novel should be the bridge between the story and the backstory.

To clarify: backstory is what happened before the point in time when this story starts — often called the inciting incident. But before the story can actually start, readers need some sort of introduction to the main character. Otherwise, whatever starts the story will lose importance because readers don’t care about the character.

The first five pages (or so) give the reader a look at what life was like before the inciting incident disrupts the story world. At the same time, the opening should give some picture of what the character wants.

Of course, the character should have both internal and external desires that are story-long. However, the author doesn’t have to rush those forward. Rather, the character’s opening-scene want may be a faint echo of what will become the deeper need.

The first five pages should also anchor the reader in the story in several ways. One is by creating a mood — humorous, stoic, lighthearted, dramatic, ironic, angst-filled, and so on.

Setting may contribute to mood and is another element that anchors the story. Even though settings change as characters move about, readers need to “see” where they are. Especially at the beginning of a novel, it is critical that readers are not confused.

In contrast, an author wants readers to be curious which gives them ample reason to continue reading beyond the first five pages. Curiosity and confusion have nothing to do with each other except that some writers mix up the two.

To create curiosity, a writer poses a question, inviting the reader to turn the page and find the answer. In the process of discovery, however, a new question will present itself, one with added weight, and the process continues.

On the other hand, if readers don’t understand who the players are or what is happening, they most likely won’t care to search for the answers to any questions that might suggest themselves. Their confusion stifles their curiosity.

Besides creating mood, providing setting, and fanning curiosity in the first five pages, the author should establish expectations, accomplished by his choice of point of view (first person, omniscient third person, close third person) and verb tense, by his creation of style (sentence structure, description patterns, the amount of narrative versus scenes, and so forth) and voice (the author and/or character’s personality infused into the story by word choice and “speech” patterns).

If you’re thinking that’s a lot of responsibility for the first few pages of a novel to bear, you’re absolutely right. Readers form opinions from those opening pages. They make decision — do I like this character? do I want to read more? do I care what happens next? should I buy this book?

Experienced writers have learned to put considerable effort into getting opening scene right. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be right on the first draft, or there might not a novel at all. 😀

For further study, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is helpful for beginning writers.

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How To Develop A Character

Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”? I’ve discussed characters in the past (archived posts on the topic are here). However, I don’t think I’ve thought so much about how a writer creates a character from scratch.

When I first started writing, I had a story in mind, and my characters were almost incidentals. Since then, I’ve learned how flat such a story is. Characters make readers care about the events that are about to happen, even as the events are the testing ground which allows characters to grow.

So which comes first? I believe that’s an immaterial question. A good story must have both a good plot and good characters—the non-flat kind.

To develop these characters, a writer needs to give each something he or she wants and something he or she needs. This latter may not be something the character is aware of consciously. In Jonathan Rogers’s excellent book The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader understands this about him fairly quickly.

The next part of developing a character is to put him on a path to gain what he wants. As the story moves forward, the initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover when he arrives, that now he wants to reach point B. Or, along the way to A he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but now realizes he really needs B. Consequently, he abandons the quest for A and sets his sights anew for B.

A second important part of character development is to increase the character’s self-awareness. He needs to have strengths and weaknesses, and he should have an increasing understanding of how he needs to use his strengths and how he should work to change his weaknesses.

Third, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. The “want” is generally something outside him, and the need is that internal something that drives him. Yes, getting what he wants and needs can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character and the reader early on, dyeing the story in hopelessness.

Notice that all these first character development points have little to do with hair style or eye color. Often those are the things writers settle on as the most important when they start putting a character together. Is he tall? Does he like football? Is she a shopper?

Those things are secondary to the wants/needs understanding. If a character like Grady wants to be loved, then how does that affect his choices—his aspirations, but also the way he dresses and what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks.

Part of understanding these aspects of the character depends on the personality of this individual. Is he a “can do” sort, so he looks at obstacles as challenges, or is he burdened by his wants and needs, fighting to keep his head above water?

Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. A passive character is not someone readers will connect with easily.

One more important element—a writer needs to think of his character as an individual. What are the quirks that he has that no one else has? Or the gestures, the speech patterns, the thinking style?

Know your character, inside and out. Then put him in any circumstance you wish, and you will know what he will do. Someone as spacey as your character would do something silly when the pressure’s on. Someone shy and retiring would never make such a spectacle of herself. But throughout the story, you test them and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible. And you know exactly what they thought because you made them just that introspective.

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Writing Style – The Jonathan Rogers Example

Recently Jonathan Rogers author of the middle grade Christian fantasy, The Wilderking Trilogy and the new release, The Charlatan’s Boy, discussed his writing style in a guest blog post at Speculative Faith.

By way of reminder, style, according to Mort Castle in a Writer’s Digest article earlier this year, is

the summation of “how” a story is presented.

I’d expand that line to say how a story or article is presented because non-fiction writers also have particular styles. Is the writing formal? Folksy? “With it” contemporary? Academic? Imaginative? Analytical? The list of possibilities is long.

Yet too often fiction and non-fiction writers alike give little thought about how they will deliver their content. Not so Dr. Rogers. He revealed in his blog post a refreshing deliberateness to his writing style.

Interestingly, he’s hit upon something that seems quite unique—an American fantasy. As he explains, much of the fantasy genre owes its greatest influence to stories from Europe, with castles and swords and other medieval imagery. What would fantasy be like if, in the telling, it had more in common with Mark Twain than J. R. R. Tolkien?

See for yourself.

The two boys regarded one another. At last the wild boy’s nasally voice broke the silence. “Are we going to tangle or not?”

Aidan stood flabbergasted. It had never occurred to him that this wild child of the river bottoms might speak a recognizable language. The feechie boy placed his hands on his hips and leaned in closer. “You heard me, young civilizer. Let’s tangle.”

Aidan blinked twice, not quite sure he understood. “T-tangle? Do you mean fight? You want to fight?”

“Sure, I reckon!” answered the river boy, bending into a slight crouch and raising his fists in front of him. For the first time a little smile flickered on his muddy face.

Aidan swallowed hard. He wasn’t feeling quite as wild and adventurous as he had a little while earlier. “Wh-why would we want to fight?”

The river boy straightened up and cocked his head. He seemed genuinely perplexed. “You want a reason? For fighting? Hmmm…I reckon I can think of something.”

He scratched his head with one hand, counted his fingers with the other, and after a short pause looked up again. “All right. Here goes. But I ain’t had a chance to polish it up yet, so don’t laugh.” He hummed a little to get his pitch, then sang to the same march tune Aidan had sung a few minutes earlier:

Dobro of the Tam I am
And I could whip you easy.
I’ll make you weep cause you smell like sheep,
And your looks are kind of greasy.

The verse was not up to Aidan’s standards, of course, but Dobro of the Tam seemed proud of it. “See,” he said, “you not the only rhyme-maker on this river.” A self-satisfied smile showed several greenish teeth, as well as three gaps where greenish teeth should have been.

Aidan thought he caught a glimpse of the feechie good humor his grandfather had told him about. The river boy was smiling. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Perhaps he could escape without getting torn limb from limb. On the surface, Dobro’s song was a challenge and an insult, but for some reason it had put Aidan at ease. It was a funny song, made funnier by Dobro’s ridiculous gap-tooth grin. Being a poet himself, Aidan appreciated the boy’s effort. And considering it was spur-of-the-moment, it wasn’t all that bad.

“Good work,” Aidan laughed. He was starting to like this fellow, in spite of his boorish behavior. “But I’m surprised you’d make fun of my looks. You look like you were fished up from the river mud. And I may smell like sheep, but you smell like a…like a… well, you smell like you brush your teeth with mashed garlic. You smell like you use a rotten catfish for a pillow. Aidan was only warming up. “You smell like you slick your hair with eel slime.”
(Excerpt from The Bark of the Bog Owl, book one of The Wilderking Trilogy

By way of comparison, read the opening pages of The Charlatan’s Boy. I think you’ll quickly see a similar writing style.

One reviewer at Amazon said

If Huck Finn were the hero of a fantasy novel, the result would be The Charlatan’s Boy. The folksy, southern voice is a delight to read, and the setting is a rough-and-tumble frontier rather than fantasy’s usual (and tired) medieval village.

Style—something that can set a writer apart, and just maybe something we should create with a little more intention.

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