Telegraphing to Your Reader -or- How to Shout Without Making a Sound

Have you read the kind of book where there are two men in the storyline; one who was a bit shady or aggressive or otherwise off-putting, and one who seemed totally awesomely perfect?

And at the end the totally awesomely perfect fellow turned out to be the twisted psychopath we were looking for all along?

I have to admit I sort of hated that.  I never really liked getting attached to a really cool character, only to find out that they were never really cool to begin with.

So I was actually inclined to be pleased when one of my readers commented that she knew from very early on who the twisted psychopath was in my novel Concerto.  It was done that way deliberately.  Today I’m going to talk a little bit about how.

It’s also going to be a bit spoiler-ish, so if you’re thinking about reading Concerto and don’t want any hint of what’s going to happen before you read it, you probably don’t want to continue.

All set?  Okay.  Here we go.

There are two main male characters in Concerto.  One is Alexis Brooks, and one is Dwight Richards.  Our protagonist does not know a whole lot about either of these characters when they are first introduced.  But I wanted the reader to be able to get a feel for them right away, and what type of role they might play going forward.  Then through the first half of the story, I’m going to test that instinct, because neither of them immediately seem to conform to the impression the reader generated.  The trick, though, is to get the reader to generate the proper impressions up front.

How do you do that?  There are lots of ways.  Let’s look at the ones I used.  First, let’s look at the very first appearance of Alexis Brooks.  Our protagonist is in the concert hall’s Green Room–presumably alone, until she hears voices approaching down a nearby hall.

Nobody was likely to be in the Green Room restrooms at six-thirty in the morning. It had to be the conductor then–Darren Johnson must have been having a meeting.

“I’m sorry, Darren, I cannot discuss this any further.”

Well, now I knew who Darren was meeting so early. That particular voice always made my knees a little weak. Alexis Brooks, international superstar, accused murderer, and concertmaster of the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

And an ongoing fangirl crush of mine since I was sixteen, but I was pretty sure this was not a good time to be thinking about that. The voices were getting louder now, and I was about to be involved in a confrontation between the conductor and the concertmaster of the symphony I worked for.

Not a pretty place to be. Pacing the house was not looking so bad right now.

“Alexis, stop.” I couldn’t tell if Darren was trying to plead or command. “You aren’t being reasonable, you have to see that.”

“I don’t care, I–” Alexis came around the corner and stopped short, staring at me. I could feel my face start burning. Terrific.

I tried to think of something to say to him, anything that wouldn’t make me look like a psycho eavesdropper. But I was drawing a total blank, and so I was still standing there like a red-faced idiot when Darren came barreling around the corner after Alexis and nearly ran right into him.   

Okay.  Now gather your impressions from that, but before we discuss it, let’s take a look at the first entrance of Dwight Richards.

A few minutes later, Dwight Richards came in. For some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I always felt tense when he was around. Dwight was the symphony’s principal second violinist. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed and really a handsome man. He’d been asking me out pretty consistently since I came to town six months ago, but I just couldn’t feel comfortable enough around him to say yes. We were pretty good friends though. He dumped his violin case in a chair, stretched, looked around, and saw me.

Uh-oh. I knew that look, and I didn’t feel like having the same conversation, ending with the same no, this early this morning. I picked up my styrofoam coffee cup and headed for the sink farther down the counter, hoping to discourage him.

No such luck. “And how is Ms. Assistant-Concertmaster today?” demanded a cheerful, deep voice at my shoulder as I turned the water on.

“Oh, you know, could be better, could be worse,” I said evasively, rinsing the cup and lid. “I didn’t sleep well. But I’m still here, which is a plus. And you?”

He didn’t answer. He stood there silently at my shoulder until I threw away the cup and turned around, and I saw he was frowning.

“What?” His scrutiny unnerved me. I looked away and saw principal violist Daniella Lewis walk in, scowl at us, and cross the room to sit down.

“I knew it,” he said quietly. “You look terrible. What happened?”

I sighed. I didn’t really want to talk about this with Dwight–he was insanely jealous of Alexis Brooks. Just the mention of our concertmaster’s name could sour a conversation. But it wasn’t like this one had been going so well anyway. “There was some excitement this morning. Alexis was pretty upset. But I think it all worked out alright in the end–it sounds like you’re going to play the Bach Double with him next week. Pretty cool, right?”

Dwight didn’t appear to think so. He stared at me a moment longer, like he was trying to hear everything I hadn’t said. “That’s it? Our high-and-mighty concertmaster was upset?” He paused. “And that upset you?”

“Well, he sounded to me like he might leave the symphony for awhile there.”

Dwight snorted. “And that would be a Terrible, Bad Thing, right?” He looked like he was thinking about stomping off. “Look, there was a Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra before Alexis Brooks came here. I’m sure we’d survive if he left.”

I shook my head. “It wasn’t the same, Dwight. You were here before Alexis came, you must know that. I just got here six months ago and I can tell. Newton’s too small a town, and the symphony is too new to compete with the big East Coast orchestras. You’d never get the talent you have now without him. People don’t go to Juilliard to play in little mid-west symphonies.”

“People don’t…wait, Ms. I-Went-To-Juilliard, why did you move out here, then?”

I could feel my face turn red. “For the opportunity to work with Alexis Brooks, of course. The greatest violinist of our age–some say the greatest violinist who ever lived. And I get to share the first stand of the symphony with him. I’d have to be crazy to pass that up, right?”

Dwight was staring at me like I was sprouting horns. “And the fact that he was the prime suspect in his wife’s murder–that he stood trial for it, and only got off on a technicality–that doesn’t bother you at all?”

There now.  We’ve officially met both of our main male characters.  And I’m betting you could tell from a mile away that Alexis is awesome and Dwight is trouble, right?

First, Alexis.  I’m not quite as blunt with his introduction as I am with Dwight’s, but the signals are still there.  Chrispen is attracted to Alexis, which is evident in the “ongoing fangirl crush” line, and her remark about his voice.  Also, you’ll notice the nervous way she jumps out of her chair when she hears him coming, the blushing and the blank mind.  We learn more from her reactions to him than from anything she says.  Because of her attraction to him, we are sympathetic to him, even with “accused murderer” thrown in there.

Now that we get to it, that’s quite a line.  “Alexis Brooks, international superstar, accused murderer, and concertmaster of the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.”  I’ve just introduced a character, using not only his first and last name, but three different subtitles, and a couple of adjectives.  Why does that matter?  Because whether I meant to or not, I just made a promise to you.  I just drew your attention to this character, highlighted him in a way you could not ignore.  Lots of people come in and out of a storyline, without a red carpet like that rolled in front of them.

I just promised you that this character is important.  He’d better turn out to be important, too, because readers do not like it when you make promises you don’t keep.

What about Dwight?  If I did my job right, he gives you a bad taste in your mouth the first time you meet him.  Why?

Dwight does a lot of things that, in combination, are very off-putting.  He invades Chrispen’s personal space.  He’s pushy.  He gives people disparaging nicknames.

I also use a bit of dialog to establish that what Dwight says can’t always be trusted.  In this scene, he tells Chrispen that Alexis got off on a technicality.  Later on, we will discover that there was a mistrial, declared for prosecutorial misconduct.  The prosecution had falsified evidence.  Most people would probably not summarize falsified evidence as a technicality–we’ve learned that Dwight will skew things to make Alexis appear as bad as possible.

But the cincher–the one thing about Dwight’s introduction that raises the red flag high into the wind, the one line that sums up this character more than any other–is this one:

 For some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I always felt tense when he was around.

She just said it all.  It’s obvious she feels bad about feeling this way; she spends the rest of the paragraph trying to soften her own unconscious judgment of him, telling us how good-looking he is and what friends they are.  It doesn’t matter.  We’ve already heard the truth.

These are the kinds of ways you can give your readers impressions about your characters–even if your viewpoint character doesn’t necessarily share the impression.  The kind of stories I started off talking about use these signals too, and use them very, very well.  The difference is that those stories build these kinds of impressions in order to turn them around.  I use them to follow through on at the end, after spending some story time challenging them.  We feel Dwight is a jerk, but for the most part, he does not behave that way in the first half of the story.  How strongly do we believe our first impression of him?  Will we hold on to it through the first half, or will we be shocked when it turns out to be true?  We feel Alexis to be a good guy, but how strongly will we hold on to that when everyone in the story world is telling us the opposite?

Either approach is valid.  Just be sure you know up front which your is, and that you are telegraphing the signals you mean to send.

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