Plot or characters

Dear Carey —

A wise writer uses what the Muse gives her. You wouldn’t want to piss off the Muse now, would you?

Sometimes a writers feel more comfortable with one approach to beginning a story — either from plot or from character — and pretty much sticks to it book in and book out. I think part of the reason for that is the way we’re hard-wired, how our brains work. Some people are just more interested in the “who” than the “how,” and vice versa. Then, you have writers who are “switch hitters,” using a fascinating character as the genesis of one book and a wonderful plot premise to grow one the next.

Probably the first thing to do if a character shows up that you want to write about is to press them to tell you as much about themselves as they can. This should include not just their current situation, job, problem. Look into their lives: look at their parents, their siblings and the kind of relationships your character has with them. When, where, and how they grew up. Their education or lack thereof. Events that shaped them. How they got where they are today, and what it cost them. Character charts — if they don’t make you itch the way they do me — can be very helpful in providing a means for digging deep. My character development work more closely resembles “putting my character on the couch.” and taking notes on what they tell me. However you do it, this insight is vital in growing a book from a character.

Next — or perhaps interspersed with this — explore/imagine the character’s current situation, what the character wants, the things at stake, the impediment to him/her achieving his/her goal. Make a list of the things that the character may need to do to reach his goal and the possible problems he/she may encounter. This is the germ of your plot.

As you go, other characters will gradually reveal themselves. They tend to fit themselves around your primary character either complimenting him/her, opposing him/her, or perhaps a bit of both. Each of these characters will bring his/her own background, needs, desires, problems, conflicts — and bend the developing plot accordingly.

Obviously in a romance the most important relationship is the one between the hero and the heroine. And it is by far the most delicately wrought. There must be tension between them from the start of the novel, but there must be within each of them — or within their ability to change — the seeds for the final reconciliation. For growing a book from character you must determine not just the hero and heroine’s past and present — but their future. The promise of that future — that happy ending — is what the reader’s reading for.

DON’T EXPECT ALL OF THIS TO BE LAID OUT FOR YOU WHEN YOU TYPE “CHAPTER ONE.” That would take all the surprises, all the “fun” out of the creative process. It would probably also give your work a formulaic, arid feel rather than a spontaneous and emotional one — which is vital to what we do.

While I don’t pretend to be privy to another author’s inspiration or way of working, I suspect last year’s Rita winner THE PROPOSITION, by Judith Ivory may well be a book that grew out of character. Both SEIZE THE FIRE and THE PRINCE OF MIDNIGHT, the RWA Best Book of 1991 strike me as stories that grew from character. In this same vein, I would recommend Susan Carroll’s Rita winner, BRIDEFINDER and Kimberley Cates’s Rita finalist, STEALING HEAVEN as other books that developed in this way.

Since this is a complex topic, Carey, and I am running out of space, I would like to take the liberty of addressing the second half of your question, how to grow a novel from plot, in next month’s column. In the meantime please remember that the best books are a collaboration, a web of plot and character woven seamlessly so you can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

You know — that chicken or the egg thing.

May the Muse be kind.

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