Maggie Toussaint writes both mystery and romance, with five books published to date. Her first novel HOUSE OF LIES, won a National Reader's Choice Award for Best Romantic Suspense. She's active in writer's organizations and freelances for a weekly newspaper. Today she's the Five Scribes special guest as she talks about the buddy system. Please welcome Maggie Toussaint.
Romeo has Mercutio. Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson. Stephanie Plum has Lula and Grandma Mazur. Eve Dallas has Peabody.
Great duos are a powerful enrichment tool in genre fiction, but it took me a while to discern why. While some writers may intuitively glom onto that power of two, I learned the old-fashioned way, through trial and error.
An early critique partner (forgive me, SD) used to write long passages from her main character POV. It was flat out fascinating to her. She hung on his every word. The rest of us, not so much. The published member of that critique group suggested that she give the lead character a friend. SD didn't like that idea because everything in her story was all set in her mind. Truthfully, what was set was a book with poor tension and fettered pacing because of the large chunks of weighty narrative.
Now what is so amazing is that while I could see this flaw in her work, I never noticed a lesser occurrence of it in mine. At the time, I was working on a story about an offbeat interior designer trying to get out from under debt to the mob. Criticism within the group abounded for my story, much to my frustration, and even though I reworked it for a year, I finally put it away in disgust. I was certain the main character was unsympathetic and nothing short of a personality transplant would resuscitate that dead-dog.
With the virtue of 20/20 hindsight, I realized the protagonist needed a sidekick. When there are two people in a scene, it comes to life. The secondary character may or may not have a character arc in the story. More often than not, the secondary character serves as a sounding board or a foil for the story protagonist.
During the crafting of my Cleopatra Jones mystery series, I gave Cleo a sidekick. Life had given me the perfect model of a sidekick--a lifelong friend who stood with me through thick and thin. With this example in mind, I crafted Cleo and Jonette to have different body builds, different rules about men and different lifestyles.
However, Cleo and Jonette are joined at the hip when it comes to golfing, dogs and solving crimes, giving them commonality and reason to spend time together, while at the same time providing built-in conflict. They share an absolute loyalty to each other, an enduring bond of universal friendship that resonates with readers.
You might consider adding a sidekick to your story if your work keeps coming back from contests, editors, agents and critique partners with comments like these: your characters just didn't grab me, or the story concept is good but is poorly executed, or even the story is narrative-heavy, disrupting the pacing and lessening the story tension.
Though these comments can also indicate other craft problems, the underlying issue may be a simple fix like adding a buddy. For example, which is more interesting? A downed airplane pilot trying to get back to civilization alone? Or with a dependent character (older, younger, injured, etc.) [character as a sidekick]. Once you add in that other person, possibilities abound.
With two characters, setting elements can be worked into dialogue as the characters react to their surroundings. Your character buddies can discuss an event that already happened, adding new interpretations, or they can plan their next avenue of investigation. Backstory can be alluded to and kept in the background.
Simply put, two is better than one.
In fact, the buddy system works for writers as well as fictional characters. Two sets of eyes are better than one. At the weekly newspaper where I freelance, the rule is that two sets of eyes have to read every story. Once the pages are "pasted" together, two sets of eyes must sign-off on each individual page. We catch many mistakes this way.
Two sets of eyes are also a good rule for fiction writing. Many writers use critique partners to review their work before it begins the rounds of submissions. Other writers hone their prose by submitting to writing contests that provide feedback.
You might assume that this double-check only works for unpublished writers, but I personally know authors who are on the New York Times bestseller list who wouldn't dream of sending something in to their editor without a "beta" reader seeing it first.
After investing heart and soul in the story, authors can become too close to the words. Sure, authors develop lists of overused words, throwaway words, passive constructions, and cliches to remove in the final edits, but many authors want the assurance that everything hangs together before they put their work out there. Each story is a fresh start, a chance to soar or fall flat on your face.
Whether published or unpublished, authors need constructive input. Since everyone works a little differently, your personal solution can be tailored to fit your needs. If critique partners drive you nuts, find an alternative way to gain input. Professional writing organizations, such as Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, often provide a common ground for like-minded writers to meet and swap their work.
Once you receive a critique or review of your work, the burden then falls on your shoulders to discern which advice is relevant. If you're in a group and receive conflicting input, chances are good that the passage in question needs stronger goals, motivations, or conflict. If you receive similar input from different sources on what needs improvement, this is usually golden and you should make those changes without quibbling.
A last caution, and final duo to consider. When making changes to your manuscript, save it to your hard drive and back up the revised document in an auxiliary location (flash drive, external hard drive or online repository). Do this on a regular basis--files need buddies, too.
Maggie Toussaint's golf game formed the basis of her mystery protagonist's golf woes. While tromping through the forested rough, she realized there's something about trying to hit a white ball in a small hole that brings out dark thoughts and murderous possibilities. With that insight IN FOR A PENNY, the first book of the Cleopatra Jones series sprang forth. ON THE NICKEL, the second installment of the series due out in March 2011, puts Cleo's sleuthing to the test once Mama's car is identified as the murder weapon.
To learn more about Maggie, visit her at www.maggietoussaint.com