Jan 29, 2014

Novel Writing Made Easy: Your Characters

OK, so I have my SOP outline and a rough idea of what my story is going to be about.

Before I start writing, I need to know WHO I'm writing about. Because a plot outline is all well and good, and a helpful roadmap, but I want to write a story that is character-driven rather than plot-driven.

This just means that I want the twists and turns of the plot to grow out of the kind of people my characters are, rather than making my characters do things that fit into my plot. You can probably think of a TV show or movie where you like the characters, and you think you know them, and then they do something that seems really forced, and you say, "Yeah, right," and shake your head and go off to make popcorn.

For example, everybody watches Downton Abbey, right? The romance between Anna and Bates is so sweet! And it's believable, because those characters really do seem compatible. And the things they do (their PLOT) feel natural because those actions fit with their characters: I believed it when Anna traveled to London to visit Bates' first wife, but stopped short of doing anything nefarious. Because Anna cares that much about Bates, but she's also upstanding and honest and kind.

And then there is Lord Grantham and his romance (such as it was) with a housemaid a couple of seasons back.

Popcorn time! That little sub-plot was hard to believe.

Why? First of all, we hardly knew the maid at all. We really didn't know WHAT her character was, so we couldn't judge her behavior as fitting with her character or not.

But mostly, it was hard to believe because we'd never seen that kind of behavior in Lord Grantham before. He'd displayed poor judgment from time to time, but mostly in financial matters. He'd always been a devoted and loving husband, though, and so the dalliance felt forced.

That's the difference between character-driven story and plot-driven story. The first is organic, and believable, and much more satisfying. The second is OK, and can be entertaining, but it feels kinda hollow, and doesn't hold our attention for long. (Notice how that Lord Grantham/housemaid subplot didn't last very long either.)

Plot-driven novels can be fun. They're the books that make good beach reads or airplane reads. Books you don't mind leaving behind in the hotel room or the seat-back pocket.

I'm hoping to write a character-driven story, though. And I can't know what kinds of things my characters will do, or how they'll react to things that happen, if I don't know WHO they are.

And so, my characters. Most importantly, my protagonist, or main character.

(I'm going to cheat here a little and use The Brixen Witch in my examples. That way, I won't be sharing spoilers for a new book.)

Rudi is a 12-year-old dairyman's son living in an Alpine mountain village a long time ago. He's an only child. He's smart, but quiet and contemplative. He's good with a slingshot. He could find his way around the slopes of the local mountain with his eyes closed. He's loyal. He's brave. He has a strong sense of responsibility. He's generous.

I have an image in my head of what he looks like, but his physical appearance doesn't matter to me too much, because it's not how he looks, but what he DOES and what he THINKS that will be important. It will drive his actions, and his decisions, and those things will drive the plot.

Next: Point of view and voice. Stay tuned!

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