Monday, October 12, 2009
WHAT COMES FIRST, PLOT OR CHARACTER?
What comes first? Plot or character? For me, they’ve got to develop together. My characters must serve my plot, and my plot must work with my characters. I could think of a great story about a guy who’s living alone in a mountain cabin and is visited by space aliens, but what’s he doing in that cabin? Why is he alone? How is he going to deal with lizard-like creatures knocking on his door? And the larger question–is the reader going to believe his reactions?
One lesson I learned about my stories. They’re not reality. It’s a world I create. But I’ve got to make it look, sound, feel, taste and smell real to the reader. The way to do that is by paying attention to every detail from characters and plot to setting and dialogue. Yet some details are more important than others. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of picking up a book and starting to read–then giving up after a few pages or a few chapters. Why? Probably because you didn’t like the plot or you couldn’t connect with the characters.
I absorbed a lot about writing techniques through my love of reading. In my teens, one of my favorite authors was Sinclair Lewis. He was brilliant at character sketches. In just a sentence or two, he could get inside the personality of a small town mayor or the head of a major corporation. But he was much less adept with plot. His stories moved slowly, and eventually I stopped reading him.
Contrast that with the action-packed movies being produced today. They serve up chases, explosions and world-crushing meteors, bombarding the screen one after the other. But mostly they don’t interest me unless they focus on compelling characters as well. And they justify the action with logic.
I’ve learned my craft from reading authors I admire, by studying movie techniques, and by figuring out what works or falls flat. Then I go back to my own stories. Every book I write begins with what I’d call a “cool idea.”
Take my October Berkley release, DRAGON MOON. What if a frightening dragon-shifter monster from my parallel universe planned to invade our world? What if he sent a spy here–and she had to figure out how to free herself from his hold on her?
I always plan to start with a gripping first scene that will plunge the reader into the action. In DRAGON MOON, Vandar, my dragon-shifter monster, flies over his domain, lands and gathers his slaves so he can execute one of them by drinking his blood. Then he thinks about his current project–invading our world and how he’s going to accomplish it.
He focuses on Kenna, a woman with telekinetic powers. She’s a slave–but I don’t want her to be too cowed. So I decided she’s only been in captivity for the past few months.
Since I’m writing romantic suspense, Kenna will develop a relationship with a man she comes to love. And because I’m writing a werewolf series, it’s going to be another one of my Marshall men. Talon Marshall. I want him in an isolated location, so I have him leading wilderness expeditions–and living at a former hunting lodge in the woods.
Kenna stumbles into our world and immediately gets into trouble when a fallen tree traps her during a thunderstorm. Talon rescues her, and they’re quickly attracted to each other. She wants to tell him why she’s in our world, but Vandar has made it impossible to speak of her mission. When she tries, terrible pains in her head incapacitate her. So I’ve trapped my characters in what looks like an impossible situation.
I always try to outline my story in advance, because I want to understand where it’s going. If you don’t know what goal you’re working toward, how can you know how each scene will advance the plot? But there are always details to discover along the way. How exactly are Talon and Kenna going to defeat Vandar? They can’t do it on their own.
They’re going to need the other Marshall werewolves and their mates. But even with the Marshalls working together, they’re not strong enough to go up against Vandar. They need someone with powers that equal the dragon- shifters–and he’s the surprise character I throw into the mix.
Because I write romantic suspense, the romance relationship develops as Talon and Kenna are struggling with the danger hanging over them. Talon’s afraid he’s bonding with a woman he can’t trust. He knows she’s hiding a secret, and he’s upset that she doesn’t trust him enough reveal it to him.
To give my stories extra punch, I often try to weave more than one threat through the plot. In this case, as the book starts, Talon has discovered a buried trunk full of stolen money and turned it in to the police. The bank robber, Mitch Sutton, who stole the money, knows Talon turned it in and wants to get even. And while Talon is off leading a wilderness expedition, Sutton almost kills Kenna.
The two threats come together when Sutton follows the Marshalls into my parallel universe as they get ready to battle Vandar and his forces.
As the book progresses, plot and character continue to work together. Kenna and Talon face an escalating series of high-stakes perils, but in every case their reactions to each other and to these threats are the most important factor in every scene.
I try to create the perfect people for my plot, but the characters don’t come fully alive for me until I start writing the book. It takes me about three chapters to get into their heads deeply enough to know how they will react in each situation they face. As I write, I may go back and fill in more about their character so the reader can understand them better. Still, I try never to overload any one part of the story with too much background. To my way of thinking, “character development” can never be the only reason for a scene. Each scene has to move the plot forward toward an ending that will satisfy me and the reader.
How do you feel about plot and character? Do they function together for you? Or is one more important than the other?