You have a better chance of selling to an editor if you fit your book into a particular subgenre. Regency historical. Vampire. Small-town contemporary. Romantic suspense. Harlequin Presents.
Once you know your target market, your plot and characters must both work together in your story.
To be very basic, if you’re writing in any kind of romance, it’s unlikely you will have a hero who is a serial killer. But in the suspense genre, Dexter has proved that you can do it in a suspense novel.
Sometimes if you do have a character with questionable traits or problems, you may be able to get away with using him if you don’t introduce his real problems immediately. In one of my Harlequin Intrigues, What Child is This, I had a hero who had been adopted. I wanted him to have a compelling reason to be searching for his birth mother and decided that if he had leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant, that would be a very strong reason for his search. My editor hated the idea of giving my hero a serious disease. I told her he was in remission and argued to keep the crucial plot element in the book.
Finally she relented, if I agreed to make sure the reader knew and liked the hero before she found out he had a fatal disease. Oddly enough, it was okay for the heroine to think the hero was a drug addict before she found out what was really wrong with him.
I learned a lot about plot and character 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, often with little action, and eventually I stopped reading him.
Contrast that with the action-packed movies being produced today. They serve up car 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 the action makes logical sense.
If you want to study some writers who do both plot and character with equal brilliance, try Stephen King or Dean Koontz, particularly his earlier works like Whispers, Lightning, and Watchers. 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.
Often a plot idea first sparks my interest in a story. But I develop the characters as I work out the plot.
What if a man is murdered and his body disappears? Then we find out that his whole life has been a lie? That’s the premise of my Harlequin Intrigue, From the Shadows. He’s not the hero of the story. The hero is the detective trying to find out who murdered him.
Or what if you have a situation like the one Elizabeth Ashtree conjured up in The Colonel and the Kid, where the hero’s son needs a heart operation to save his life. But their home is in Russia where the proper medical attention is unavailable, and the only way the father can save his child’s life is to sneak him into the U.S. What are his the gut-wrenching emotions?
And what if the heroine is a U.S. military officer, who will be breaking the law if she finds out his plan and doesn’t report it?
In my own work, I try to create the perfect hero and heroine for each story. I ask myself, why are these people in this plot? Or–who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?
In my Intrigue, Solid as Steele, the heroine is a psychic who sees the death of a murder victim in a dream. Frightened, she calls her friends at the Light Street Detective Agency. But the hard-bitten detective hero doesn’t believe in psychics and doesn’t think she can know anything about the murder unless she’s involved. Still, they’re forced to work together to solve the crime, and as she uses her special talents to give him more and more information, he’s forced to change his mind about psychic abilities. Complicating their relationship is their guilt that they were attracted to each other before her husband was killed.
Even as I work out my plot and plan the characters, the people 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. “Character development” should never be the only reason for a scene. Each scene between your characters has to move the plot forward toward an ending that will satisfy the reader.
What writers do you admire? Or which authors made you want to become an author?
Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick