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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Discussing Published Hooks & Books » Footnote People

   
Author Topic: Footnote People
Robert Nowall
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This is something of a book review, but rather than put it in the "What I'm Reading Now" threat, I'm putting it here, because it's something of a rant and something of literary advice.

I just picked up and read this book: When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles' Rise to the Top, by Larry Kane. I'm a sucker for new Beatle books, and Larry Kane not only has written some other interesting Beatle books, but knew them personally and accompanied them on some of their American tours. This book goes beyond that. There are a lot of people involved in the saga that is the life of the Beatles, and this book tells who some of them are.

But I'm intrigued by the notion of "footnote people"---they pass through the histories and biographies and autobiographies, do their thing with the central story or subject, then depart. We learn little to nothing about them.

Isaac Asimov, in his autobiography, talks about problems he had with one Chester Keefer, an official at Boston University School of Medicine, who (essentially) presided over Asimov's departure from the school faculty. At one point Asimov brags about how Keefer and others will be remembered just for what Asimov writes about them in his autobiography. (Page 156 of In Joy Still Felt.) And for years and years, it was true, and all I knew of this Chester Keefer was what Asimov wrote about him.

The thing is, I eventually did learn something more. Another book (not before me) talks about how Chester Keefer had the charge of the penicillin supply in the United States during World War II, and if somebody wanted some for someone, he was the guy who had to be persuaded to grant it. An important position---penicillin had just gone into mass production and there wasn't enough to go around for everyone---and one not to be trusted lightly to someone. This doesn't seem like someone worthy of the withering scorn Asimov directs at him.

Back in the Beatles saga (see? I got back to it) there are those who are named and their role in the saga is described---but they depart, leaving us with little idea of who they were. Mentioned in passing in this book is Charles O. Finlay, who offered a huge amount of money to the Beatles to play a concert in Kansas City at the last minute. From a lot of the books, it's clear the writers don't know who he is, or his role in American baseball and therefore American history---not even that the team he owned, the A's, didn't stay in Kansas City long after that, but moved to Oakland.

People like Alan Williams, Frieda Kelly, Sam Leach, Rod Davis, Teddy Taylor, Rory Storm, Larry Parnes, Horst Fascher, Bill Harry, played their part in the Beatles Saga, but, often, all we know of them is that part. If they survived, they had lives of their own, before and after. Sometimes their involvment with the Beatles is the least interesting thing about their lives---sometimes in their minds, too.

I feel, too often, this is forgotten by the writers. Some get it---they'll give us brief, often too brief, sketches of the people---but, more often, they're just there to provide a few facts, then they're gone. "Spear carriers," they sometimes call them---they hold a spear on stage behind the main action.

The point of this rambling rant is that we fiction writers also have some responsibility to our characters, and, ultimately, to our readers. We can put a character on the page, have him say or do something---maybe even just one line---but that character has a "before," and, unless he immediately dies, has an "after," too. "Spear carriers" is a misnomer. We have to have some idea of that if we're to make them live on the page and in our minds.

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KellyTharp
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I like your rant, RN. I have several secondary characters in my series and find that it would be soooo convenent to set them aside when I am trying to keep the story line tight. Luckily, I have some very good friends/fans who constantly ask me to make sure to put this character back in, or that one as "he was great in book one". Therefore, I find that I must keep these essential charaters carrying their spears, even if it is only a brief cameo, so to speak. Inquiring minds want to know where my spear carriers are, though I wonder --- is this a problem primarily for someone writing a series, like I am? Thanks for the input. KT
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