I’ve been writing professionally for about seven years. The one thing I’ve noticed about my writing and my production of published books is that I’m a slow writer. Now, don’t take that to mean I put in a comma in the morning and remove it in the afternoon, no. It’s just that my stories come together very slowly. Sure, I may have an awesome idea for a book, but to be honest, it takes years for some books to come to fruition.
I wrote my first published book, Kitty Wishes, in a week. It’s cute enough book, but it’s not satisfying to me. I feel I could have done a lot better. But hey, it was my first book and it was a learning process.
Another of my books, Loving Among the Dead, was basically written in 2012, but fussed over and revamped until it was published in 2014. It was one of my favorite books to write and I really connected with the characters. The sequel, well, not so much. We….don’t talk about that much around here.
My quest was always to write faster; to produce more books. According to the “experts”, more books meant more money and more recognition. So, because I learn by example, I started reading some of Amazon’s Top 100 books.
I learned something all right. Many of the characters from these books were hollow paper doll, animated only just enough to string the plot together. For those I managed to finish—and there weren’t very many—they left me cold and bored and feeling like I had just read someone’s second draft outline.
But still, I persevered, purchasing plotting books and outlining books and how to plot quickly and this class and that webinar. I even joined a few Facebook groups.
Then, while I was reading a blog of writing tips it hit me like a bolt from the blue. The words “character driven plot” had bounced around in my head for a few years now, and I really never totally understood what that meant. But in reading this blog I finally got it.
It’s the WHY.
Why are characters different? Why is Columbus different from Tallahassee in “Zombieland”? Why is John McClane different from that sleazy colleague of his wife’s (who tried and ultimately failed to “negotiate” with Hans Gruber? For that matter, why did Hans even entertain that guy’s mess, only to (spoiler alert) to kill him? (Yes, I’ve watched Die Hard again for the fiftieth time.)
Me to myself: Character, stupid.
The choices the character makes in the story makes the plot go where it’s going to go. And cardboard characters won’t cut it.
This was why some of these popular romance books left me high and dry. There was no…emotion, no impetus, no REASON behind the characters’ personalities. They went here and did this, went there and did that. Just…cuz. Oh, and the instalove is soooo overplayed. I’ve toyed with that a little in some of my stories, and I just can’t sell it. (No shade thrown to those who enjoy and/or write those types of stories….it’s just not for me – I don’t judge someone else’s hustle….)
In looking over some of my unpublished stories, it seems I understood this innately some time ago and ignored it in favor of chasing plot.
For example: I’d written a scene where a woman goes into a convenience store. Her ex-boyfriend happens to be there and he starts begging her to take him back and how much he loves her and all that jazz. Suddenly, two armed robbers come into the store. The heroine turns to look at them, then by the time she turns back to her ex, he’s gone, hiding behind a rack of snacks.
WHY did he do that? Easy….he’s a coward. But why is he a coward? Is he a rich guy used to getting anything he wants with little effort? Was he caught in a robbery in the past and this is natural reaction? Does he know criminals and he knows they’re looking for him?
Backstory is important. Not only does it round out characters, but it gives you, the author, a clue to what they’re going to do next.
In reference to the jerk hiding behind the Cheetoes, will he stay there? Will he have a change of heart and protect her? Or is trauma from that past even keep him there, hating himself for being such a coward? If he wants her back so badly, perhaps he’ll overcome the fear and save her. Who knows? It depends on how I’ve built the character and his specific backstory.
I say all that to say, inciting incident, dark night of the soul, rising action, all that story structure stuff does me no good…if I don’t know the character. It’s my stories where I focus more on building my characters rather than building my plot are the ones I like the most and the ones, I hope, offer the readers the most emotional experiences.
Following this, I’ve vowed never to purchase another book on plotting ever in life. (Given the pile on my bookshelves, I won’t have to!) Instead I’ll spend my time studying characters and how they form and/or change within a story. (If they change at all…)
And it’s not only from bad to good either – Take Michael Corleone from The Godfather. He insists “that’s my family, not me”, but during the course of the movie he goes from clean cut military hero to heir apparent. Same thing with Breaking Bad. Walter White snags our sympathy as a poor schlub who cooks meth to provide his family with some money after he’s dead from cancer, and basically turns into a ruthless, driven….killer.
But that’s a post for another day. For right now, I’m finally glad I have my finger fully on the pulse of the importance of characters.
And that’s my “the more you know” moment of the week!