Monday, March 07, 2011

A Defense of Characters & What They Offer

Recently on The New Author Fellowship blog writer Keven Newsome wrote a blog post titled “Story First Writing”. In his opening paragraph he stated: A plot first writer comes up with a great plot first, and then creates characters to endure said plot. A character first writer develops complex characters first, and then makes a plot in order to give their characters something to do.

I had to take issue with because, of course, as a character-first writer I have to tell you that any character worth writing about comes equipped with plenty to do before you even start to work on your story. In my comment to the article I stated that, in my experience, genre writers (i.e. mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, the ubiquitous vampire, etc.) tend to be more story-first writers while general and literary fiction writers tend more toward character-first.

Of course those characters come pre-supplied with stories of their own and when you have a few richly developed characters, each with their own story, their own history, and you bring them together, watching what happens can be as exciting for the writer as it is for the reader. I can't tell you the number of times I have been writing away, totally enthralled with the world I am creating/transcribing (I've never been quite sure whether I make these worlds up or if some angel sits on my shoulder and describes them to me) when – BLAM! - something happens and I think, Man, I didn't even see that coming! Wow!

My friend Ray often gets the “benefit” of me rambling on randomly about the current WIP, whatever it is. I like that he lets me do this and, sometimes he gives feedback, often without intending to, that makes me stop, consider, and think, holy cow, I never thought of that. All three of my novels started out with a fascinating main character – someone I had dreamed about for weeks, months, even years before I started writing about them. In all three cases the first character was the main male character because that's the kind of woman I am and entering that guy's world was the best part of the process.

The girl I was in college fell under the spell of a mysterious mariner who had a shady past and that blossomed into The Old Mermaid's Tale. The woman I was in my forties began day-dreaming about a good man, an honorable and decent man, who was stuck in a loveless marriage but who didn't want to upset his kids so he escaped by taking on the quest of finding a lost work of art. That grew into Each Angel Burns. Some years back I was sitting in the hot tub at my health club talking to my friend Rebecca and I told her I'd been thinking about this character who had been a great football player but who was convicted of a terrible crime and went to prison. I'm writing about that now in a novel I call “Depraved Heart”.

I suppose any one of my stories could have evolved from the story first except I don't think I would have known what the story was without the characters. Take Each Angel Burns for example. As a writer you have three interesting characters to start with, all of them just turning fifty, which I was when I started working on the story:
Gabe Hawking – good father, good husband, good carpenter, devoted to his cranky old father and his slightly crazy, aging-hippie brother. He had once wanted to be an artist but as a young man he made a foolish mistake that changed the direction of his life and he's been beating himself up about that ever since, Now his kids are leaving the nest and the most affection he gets is from his dog, Zeke. He's sick of being the “good” guy but doesn't know any other way to be.

Fr. Peter Black – a brilliant man and a devoted priest from the most humble of backgrounds. He has spent his life in service to his faith and his students, as well as his life-long friends. But once long ago he had been in love with a beautiful woman he wanted to leave the seminary and spend his life with. She rejected him and he returned to his vocation but now 25 years later she is back.

Maggie Marceau – a lovely but fragile woman who grew up in a strange, mysterious world of make-believe and fantasy. She rejected the man who loved her to marry an older wealthy man who promised her everything – but that came with conditions. Now she has left him and is beginning a life of her own, pursuing her career as a sculptor, determined to be free of her possessive and unscrupulous husband.

Okay, now tell me, with those three characters to start with how could a fascinating story NOT unfold?

Well, writers will always debate – which came first the story or the people? It is up to each writer to decide.

Thanks for reading.


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