Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More on Plot and Character

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


  1. Excellent advice. But especially about market. Like location...location...location in real estate, writers need to think about their market/readers even as they plan their next story.

  2. I enjoy fantasy, paranormal, lots of suspense, Brenda Novack, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Keri Arthur, Candace Havens. I've read a couple of yours that were excellent as well.
    About what Mary Hart Perry posted, that is why I have no idea once I finish and polish what I've been working on for a while where to go with it. There is so much information out there but I get lost and confused saying I will deal with it when I am ready to try submitting.

    1. Ckcrouch, the best way to know where to submit is to think about markets and your audience before you write the piece. Or look and see who published the books you like to read.

  3. Yes, I agree--above all know your market and play to your strengths. Problems sometimes arise because the lines can be blurry between catagories. That was the reason I made my protagonist in "My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet)" a gynecological oncologist. Although the voices in that book were witty and there were romantic elements, I knew it was essentially a mainstream novel. So I figured making the lead character a surgeon dealing with cancer would add just the right level of seriousness to the mix. And it worked.

    About really knowing your character--yes, it takes a few chapters for me to take up residence in her head and get her voice right. I've heard that Elizabeth George writes pages and pages detailing her main character's appearance, personality, lifestyle--down to what she eats for breakfast and the color of her lipstick--before beginning to write her story. True? Perhaps. As for me,I know the basics about my main character but enjoy seeing the details come alive as the plot and interaction with other characters shape her.

  4. I am a huge Dean Koontz fan. Another one for that list is Harlan Coben. Thank you for also mentioning my book, The Colonel and the Kid. I loved writing that book and exploring the emotions of a father desperate to save his son. I agree that my characters don't fully evolve until I'm well into the plot. Then they start telling me things, almost on their own!

    1. Elizabeth, I loved The Colonel and the Kid and was glad to use it. Toby, I can't write character sketches. What I write all goes into the book--except the outline, of course.

  5. I, too, am a big Dean Koontz fan, because as you said of Lewis, he can make a character come alive in only a few sentences, PLUS, the man can move a plot along quite deftly.

    I loved your line about creating two characters that will drive each other crazy--that's the essence of any kind of romance IMHO.

  6. It was authors like Stephen King, Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie who first make me want to become a writer myself. When I got into reading romance my inspirations expanded to include writers like VC Andrews, Victoria Holt, Madeleine Brent and Karleen Koen. And just like you said, all of them have the ability to sketch characters in a few sentences, and move the plot along so that you don't want to stop reading.

    Funny that you mentioned Sinclair Lewis, as I just re-read ELMER GANTRY a few months ago. You were spot-on: wonderful characters, but the plot didn't follow conventional highs and lows, which made it drag a bit.

    Thanks for the blog post! I really feel like getting some writing done now! :)

    1. If you think Elmer Gantry has problems, try Main Street. The same thing over and over. Arrowsmith is better because he got plotting help.

  7. Hum, well now Blogger is not letting me "reply."
    Nancy, yes, fiction needs conflict. Which is so hard for the author because you want to "make it right." I have a rule--never create a problem and solve it in the same chapter.

  8. "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."

    Excellent post, Rebecca! I was just telling a group of writers this last night. Make us love the hero first, then throw in the baggage. Hopefully by then we will love him more.

    But I love that you said to know your target market. I get my hand slapped sometimes for saying that, but it's just a no-brainer. Still, people will argue with me. "NO! Write the book of your heart! Don't target anything!" Sigh.... If you want to sell, know what you are trying to sell and who you are trying to sell it to.

    Thanks for this!

    1. I'm glad this post "spoke" to you. I do think it's counter productive not to think about market. That said, when I wrote my first werewolf book, KILLING MOON, I wondered is a publisher would buy it. Back then, paranormal wasn't "in." But it was something I had to write. My agent retired while I was writing it, which was good, because she didn't really like werewolves. I decided to find an agent who WOULD like it.