Plot and Character – Make Them Work Together

Writing at Thrillerwriters - Phoenix

Writing at Thrillerwriters, Phoenix, 2006

How do you start a book?  With plot or character?  It doesn’t matter which one rings your chimes, the bells must peal together in harmony.  Your characters must serve your plot, and your plot must work with your characters.  You might 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 little green men knocking on his door?  And the larger question–is the reader going to believe his reactions?

The most important thing to remember about a novel or story you are writing is that it’s not reality.  It’s a world you create.  But you must make it look, sound, feel, taste and smell real to the reader.  You do that 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 learned 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.

If you want to study some writers who do both plot and character with equal brilliance, try Stephen King or Dean Koontz.  I know English teachers and devotees of literary fiction tend to sneer at them for being “popular.”  But there’s a reason for their popularity.  They deliver a great reading experience over and over.

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 August Harlequin Intrigue, MORE THAN A MAN, for example.  It’s about a guy who’s lived for 700 years.  In this story, I started with my protagonist.  Who is he?  Why has he lived so long?  What experiences shaped him?  How did he find out he was immortal?

The man who now calls himself Noah Fielding was born in an impoverished English village during the “great pestilence.”  He was about ten when everyone else in his village died.   A group of monks found him and took him back to their monastery, where he got his education.  He was on the fast track to becoming abbot until a group of monks began to whisper that he was in league with the devil because he never got sick and never aged past his early thirties.  One night, they attacked him with knives, and he staggered away into a barn, where he prepared to die.  But he woke up the next day with his wounds healing.  Since he couldn’t go back to the monastery, he had to figure out how he would live.  With no good options, he stole clothing, money and a horse from a rich man, then later sailed to Italy and became an art importer.  All that’s back story, which I weave into the plot–some through his memories, some through dialogue.

As I round out my characters, I think about what plot will work best for them, keeping in mind that my hero, heroine and antagonist all  need an urgent personal agenda which will lead to strong conflicts in the story.

I always plan to start with a gripping first scene that will plunge the reader into the action.   In MORE THAN A MAN, a confused and half-unconscious Noah is hauled out of an experimental submarine.  He’s the only survivor, which immediately brings him to the attention of Jarred Bainbridge, a dying millionaire desperate to find a miracle cure for his cancer.

Since I’m writing romantic suspense, Noah must develop a relationship with a woman he comes to love.  She’s Olivia Stapler, an injured Las Vegas showgirl who’s in bad trouble because her brother, Pearson, is trying to force her into an extortion scheme.  (I spend almost as much time on Olivia’s character development as on Noah’s, although she’s only in her late twenties.)

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,  you can’t guarantee that each scene will advance the plot.  But there are always details to discover along the way.  How exactly are Noah and Olivia going to get away from Bainbridge?  How do they resolve the conflict with Pearson?

The two main threats–Bainbridge and Pearson–are woven together after Noah fights off the brother and takes a wounded Olivia to his estate.  As they get to know each other, she’s worried that he’s hiding a terrible secret.  And Noah wrestles with the problem of how to reveal his background without driving away Olivia.  As they struggle with their relationship, Bainbridge and Pearson hatch a plot to kidnap her.  Once she’s in Bainbridge’s clutches, he uses her to control Noah.  In a horrifying scheme to test Noah’s recuperative powers, Bainbridge ties Olivia to a stake piled high with straw and explains that the only way to save her is to run through a  wall of fire advancing toward her.  When Noah’s horribly burned, Olivia thinks he’s sacrificed himself to save her.  Instead, she finds out his secret in the worst possible way.  Before her eyes, his burns begin to heal.

As the book progresses, plot and character continue to work together.  Noah and Olivia 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 hope I’ve helped you understand why it’s important to develop plot and character together.  In my own work, I try to create the perfect people for each story, but they 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.  And 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.

I write stories where my main characters are falling in love against a backdrop of suspense and danger.  And I always reward them with the happy ending that they’ve earned. Since I’m writing romantic suspense, I take care of the action climax first.  The characters must confront the danger that’s dogged them throughout the story and defeat it.  Only then can they  work out their personal relationship.

Does Olivia understand Noah well enough to stay with him?  Can he take the risk of loving again?  And what happens when she grows old and he doesn’t?  Or can they find a way to solve this basic problem?  Working all that out in MORE THAN A MAN was a challenge–but challenging myself is always part of the writing process for me.