The Character Driven Novel – Mark An X On The Map

mapI’m starting the planning process for my next novel. This time I’m trying on Elizabeth George’s excellent and comprehensive outlining procedure, which includes doing a perceptive and searching analysis of each major character. Wouldn’t you know it? It’s working.

A novel is a nebulous thing when it first starts out – an opening scene, maybe two strong characters colliding, maybe an idea for a bang-up action climax. It’s all nice to have a handle, but then you have to dive into the thing. Find out what it’s all about. Who your characters are, and how (and why) they go from here to there.

Treacherous Terrain

Your characters are allowed, even encouraged, to stumble around in the dark, but you are not. (I’m talking to the planners here, not the pantsers, which is a different adventure entirely.) You have to know the map. You have to know where your protagonist is, where he is going to end up, and the treacherous terrain he needs to cross to get there. This is true on the level of physical action and circumstance, but also internally. Your protagonist – and all your major characters – need to change and evolve personally during the story. And you have to know how, and why, and how to get them there.

It all starts with the character analysis. What is my main man’s psychological crutch? Why does he have it? What does he do when someone knocks it out from under him? What’s his biggest hang-up? What does he most love, most hate? What do others see when he walks into the room? Questions like this, and the others on Elizabeth’s Prompt Sheet, are already revealing to me what struggle my protagonist needs to go through in this story. From there it is easier to figure out what obstacles to throw at him to facilitate the change. Poor bastard.

Only One X

Note I said struggle, and change. Singular. Novels are intricate and complex beasts, but I believe that my protagonist should only go through one major change from beginning to end. The main thrust of the story, the theme, the one brick wall he must climb to be a better person at the end. Knowing what that one struggle is, and limiting it to only the one, makes for a strong story that will pull the reader along. When your reader can stand at the start of the map and dimly perceive one clear and decisive X marked on the opposite side of it, then they can charge off on the protagonist’s harrowing adventure with a will.

This won’t make for a simpleminded story. I’m talking the protagonist’s journey here; you still have other characters, and side plots, and of course there is always the bad guy. They have their character analyses, too. They have their own struggles, their own changes they must make (or refuse to) by the end. Their stories are the weave and twist around the strong line of the protagonist’s journey that make things intricate and rich.

So here I am, carving out my characters, and furiously jotting down notes of discovery and exclamation on the side – this is the past incident that gave my guy a twist in his gut, this is what he needs to work out in this story. Which will need this scene, and this struggle, and would reflect nicely in this character’s plotline … well, like Elizabeth says, I’ll end up with far more ideas and inspirations than I can use. But I will know my starting point, and I will know my X.

The rest is simply the wilderness. And that’s the fun part.

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Writing Great Characters Step 1 – People Watching

child-laughingWriting great characters is one reason why we write. Right? We get to imagine being a whole other person – lots of them – and the better we put ourselves in our character’s heart, mind, and body, the more we give our reader a strong, effective and touching experience. It’s the essence of the art.

But first we need to have a character to write about. I’m talking starting from scratch here, when the last story is done and we’re wandering about with an empty imagination waiting for the next to arrive. Who will we imagine?

The good news is, they are all around us. Characters are everywhere.

Eyes Wide Open

Plant yourself on a bus bench. In a mall, at the fountain in the town square, anywhere you will see masses of people moving. (I come from a massage therapist’s perspective, so I prefer movement.) Sit still, open your eyes, and as far as possible without staring, look at them.

You’ll see people. They’ll be moving. Then you will notice something – they all move differently. That guy with his head high and chest out, striding forward like he’s going to conquer the day and save the damsel; that laughing fat man with the rosy face who carries his weight like a point of pride; that other fat man with the complexion of underdone pastry who looks like he’s drowning inside himself; that young girl with an armful of books, moving slowly with eyes wide open because there’s just so much to see. She’s the one who catches you looking.

See? Do you really see? Every body shape, every variation of movement and set of face and style of dress, tells you something about the person inside. And your writer’s mind creates the story behind the moment. Your fabulous writer’s mind, always and forever asking the magic question Why. Then you will start to know why the little girl smiles when she sees you, and why the conqueror has such a bold stride but looks so frightened.

Inside Their Skin

Just like that, you have the beginnings of a great character. Lots of them, in fact. Just by looking. Take out your notebook – you brought it along, right? – and jot down the salient points of your favourites.

What’s next? Seeing is good, but a thoroughly-imagined character is much more than skin deep. Next, you get inside their skin. We’ll save that for another post. For now, go out and watch people.