Note by Note and Scene by Scene–Suspense Novels: Part 2

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Memorable characters

The characters you create live the story. There will be major players—the protagonist and her adversary the antagonist, several second tier characters who make appearances to enhance the unfolding drama, and perhaps a host of mostly nameless folks who flit in and out of various scenes.

The major characters, and some of those on the second tier, will face challenges that escalate as the story progresses. Those challenges need to be logical for each character, given their personality strengths and weaknesses.

Each character should have strengths as well as weaknesses. No person is perfect. Neither should a fictional character be perfect—not perfectly charming or perfectly evil. Even the antagonist must have some redeeming qualities.

This is where some folks shake their heads and ask, “Exactly what is redeeming about Jay Pack?”

I admit he’s pretty far gone. But as his story is revealed, it’s obvious that he’s been the victim of bullies around the world. We can empathize with the boy Jay, and realize that bullies can create monsters more sinister than themselves. Jay also has a soft spot for his mother.

The Name Game

Once during a read-around at a writer’s meeting, I shared the opening scene of Sundrop Sonata. Afterwards, another writer came up and insisted, “You have to change her name. There really WAS a Nola Pack in Winfield when I lived there.”

I gave this some thought and decided not to change the name of this minor character. After all, I didn’t personally know a Nola Pack. The person she referred to was an acquaintance from forty or fifty years previously. I picked the name “Nola” from the title of a piano solo I have enjoyed since my teen years, and the “Pak/Pack” name was selected from a Korean/English dictionary as one that would easily be anglicized.

About the same time, I was reading a novel by my friend Mary Coley, in which the bad guy had the same name as my first father-in-law. Was I offended? Certainly  not. After all, Mary could not have known this name meant anything to me.

As writers, we have the glorious opportunity to select names for a whole host of characters. Parents agonize over names for their newborns. Multiply that agony by the number of characters in a book and you begin to see what a challenge naming characters can be.

I have a few guiding principles for selecting names. First, I want to stay away from names of people I actually know, or that are identifiable. Second, I don’t want to pick something so unusual nobody can pronounce it. With billions of people on the planet, the idea of picking names that are unique—that belong to nobody in real life—is a long shot. How many people share your name already? Have you ever done a search on Facebook for yourself? I share my  name with a dozen or so other women on Facebook alone.

In the selection of character names for Sundrop Sonata, I chose some common first names paired with surnames that sometimes show up in my family history, or in a dictionary, or are cities on a map. Traveling often inspires new words and names for use in the stories writing themselves in my head.

If you encounter a book with character names you recognize, don’t take it personally. Just enjoy the story.

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Viewpoint

Somewhere in the writing process, the writer must decide which character, or characters, will tell the story. I struggled a long time with this, writing and re-writing the opening scene about fifty times over the course of eight years. I couldn’t seem to get beyond chapter one.

Then, in a writing workshop, I encountered the idea of using several viewpoints, and even different voices. The use of three viewpoints answered my challenges. Izzy’s first person narrative is mingled with the thoughts, plans and dreams of two others in third person (Laura and Jay). There were just too many things Izzy would not have known that were crucial to the story. Yet I found it impossible to tell her story in anything but first person.

Thus, Sundrop Sonata is written with three viewpoints and a mix of first and third person voices.

A good friend reviewed the novel in the Piano Technician’s Journal. In her review, she raved about the “sonata” format, using this trio of voices. A sonata is defined as “a musical composition, usually for solo piano, in three or four extended movements contrasted in theme, tempo, and mood.” With the three different voices filtering through the story, each chapter becomes a literary sonata, or sonatina, with the entire novel a sonata.

The sonata idea worked quite well in several ways. I’ll share some of them in Part 3, Conflict and Suspense.

Walnut Valley Festival

Find Sundrop Sonata here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS

 

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