If you visit my blog regularly, or semi-regularly, you’ve probably heard me mention before that good fiction is character-driven. That’s something I firmly believe, ever since reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. I have never started writing with a developed plot, and the one time I’ve outlined, I developed that outline thinking about the characters, who they were, and how they would respond to the crises they face.
Plot is important, of course. Always will be. But the thing is, with the exception maybe of some subgenres of crime fiction (the crimes Hercule Poirot solves, for instance, aren’t really dependent on his personality), characters drive, shape, and change the plot you think you’re going to write until you can hardly recognize it.
Suppose your novel is about a woman with a career that’s crashing and burning and a husband who’s cheating on her; she’s trying to pick up the pieces. Great. That’s a workable concept for a romance novel, perhaps, or a women’s fiction novel, but it’s not a plot. A plot involves answering a lot of questions that concept raises. (And please, forgive me, romance fans, if that sounds awful. I don’t read or write romance; that’s just something that came to my head.)
Will she quit her job, or try to shoulder through? Might this be a chance to pursue an entirely different career based on lifelong dreams she’s had? Is it worth trying to salvage a relationship with her husband? Will she divorce him? Will he choose the mistress, maybe, and start a life with her?
All these are not so much decisions left to the author as they are choices the characters have to make, and those decisions will be influenced by lots of factors that will hold greater or lesser weight depending on who those characters are. Does the husband feel any kind of remorse? Does he consider the affair a mistake, or the marriage? Are there kids involved, and how does he feel about them? How involved is he in their lives? How prideful is his wife? Is she the kind of person who would leave him or have her own affair to hurt him in kind? What’s the basis of their relationship?
This is why you can write without having a formulated plot. You can figure that out as you go…. you just might have to rewrite or cut or add a lot of things (see my post about what to expect when you write without an outline). What you MUST have before you outline or write is some knowledge of your characters. You have to know your characters as people. You have to know what their dreams and desires are, and what they fear. You have to know what their approach to life is, and how they view its challenges. You have to know their strengths and their flaws. You see, these are the things that develop your plot. These are the things that let you know, when that protagonist finds out her husband’s cheated on her, how she’ll react in a way that rings true, because it’s real. It’s how she, as the person she is, would confront that obstacle.
Anyway, I hope that makes some kind of sense. It’s something I feel I’ve hinted at and referred to in previous posts without really breaking it down in this way: characterization and plot should work together, as I claimed in a different post back in December, because you can’t have an interesting plot without interesting characters. What’s your approach to characterization? How do you get to know your characters?