Reading Watchers has given me a new appreciation for character. Everyone knows that characters are crucial to story-writing, but Koontz takes it to a new level. Specifically, introductions. Beginnings are tough, and characters are no exception. Like real people, a character’s first impression can determine whether they’ll become a truly memorable addition to the story or a faceless name plastered with shallow adjectives. Ever found yourself struggling to remember which character was which? When John, Alex, Frank, and Edwin all begin to blur together, there’s a problem — one I face in my own writing.
As I mentioned before, I have a tough time with short stories. I struggle to develop character quickly. I tend to lean too far one way or the other, ending up riddling my character with cliches or slogging down the rest of the narrative with a lengthy character build-up. Koontz has mastered the art of pacing (which I hate him for), and I’ve gone back and tried to figure out what made his characters tick.
I’m not by any means claiming to have discovered the Holy Grail of character creation here, but there seem to be a few techniques he uses that let him simultaneously develop his character and his narrative. The action rarely sags with this kind of phenomenal parallel development. Here are the three that seemed to stand out the most:
1.) Development through conflict – One of the main characters is a xenophobe named Nora. How are we introduced to this paranoia? Through a sleazy television repairman named Strek. Every word, every nudge, every glance is interpreted as having a deeper innuendo. This opens the door to an even more complicated development. Nora’s self image was destroyed by her Aunt, so she finds herself torn between fearing unwanted sexual advancements and convincing herself that he’s merely being polite. After all, no one would ever make sexual comments towards her unless it was simply to mock. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Strek is a stalker, and a dangerous one at that. When Nora realizes this, she tries time and time again to stand up for herself, to fight him off, to tell him no. Every time she ends up giving in to her fear. All of these elements of her character are introduced to us through a very intense series of scenes in which Strek’s stalking becomes more and more intense and frightening. The reader is drawn into the conflict and tension. Nora’s development comes as a natural extension of these scenes so the intensity of the narrative never suffers. Brilliant!
2.) Development through extremes – The first time you ever meet the primary protagonist, he’s trekking across the state of California making a trip fueled solely by his emotional turmoil. Seeing him writhing in the clutches of these mental demons gives us a beautiful internal snapshot without resorting to straight exposition. The mere fact that his actions — the entire narrative at that point — are driven by the depths of this sort of mental anguish already sets the stage for tension. Later, when his problems are explained in more depth, there’s no questioning it. There’s no surprise. Everyone’s already bought into the premise that these emotions are a serious issue because it had, for a point, single-handedly determined the events of the story. It’s the epitome of “show, don’t tell”. It’s something I’d never really thought of before. I always want to gradually work up towards a character’s big flaws, aiming for an M. Night style “it’s a tweest!” revelation. That doesn’t always work. In fact, I’d say for the most part (but not always!) Koontz hit the nail on the head. Let your character’s demons out early.
3.) Development through central focus – You have a young girl. She loves horses. Okay, go! Make a deep, believable character. At one point in the novel, Koontz whips us to the outskirts of California to the scene of his monster’s next attack. We’re introduced to a young girl who’s completely unrelated to the large events unfolding, yet within pages we feel like she’s been with us the entire time. Koontz takes one aspect of her and hyperfocuses on it. In this case, it’s her horse. Similarly to developing through extremes, we know this aspect of the character is deep-seated when it dictates an entire scene. She’s trying to sleep, but can’t stop thinking about the new horse she just got. From there, her mind wanders to her future plans of racing, how she got the horse, how the horse is doing now, etc. Eventually she works herself into a fervor and sneaks outside, “just to take a peek at her beloved Goodheart”. Even after The Outsider strikes, the horse plays a huge role in the scene. To avoid spoilers I’ll spare the details, but suffice to say Koontz uses that one element to a huge effect. I had never really thought about using a central focus like that to introduce a character. Had I thought of it own my own, I would have dismissed it. After all, no one likes a two-dimensional character. Is it a great character development tool? Not really. It’s hard to build a character that legitimately has one focus. With that said, it’s an excellent way to introduce a character, especially if you can use those elements to give the scene extra momentum.