by Linda Rodriguez
At the end of 2016, my seventh book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, was published. I've taken a popular course I've taught for years on using depth of character as a springboard to a strong plot and turned it into a book designed to help the aspiring writer who wants to tell a story made compelling by the truth and complexity of its characters. In it, I provide actual documents I've used to create my own published novels, demonstrating the methods I teach.
I thought I'd give a sample to our Writers Who Kill blog readers, so I'm offering a section of Plotting the Character-Driven Novel below. You can find the complete book in trade paperback and ebook here.
Which comes first? Location, situation, or character?
The truth is that your initial seed for your novel can come from any one of these, but you will soon enough have to bring in the other two before you can have a truly exciting concept for the book. We’re going to talk about character-driven plotting in this course, but your character has to be rooted in a place (or be challenged by a new or hostile place), and a situation has to be set up that provides a major challenge to your character. A character floating in empty white space or mythical TV-nowhere land is not going to interest a reader. Neither is a character whose situation offers no problems, challenges, threats, or conflict. Whether you begin with a fascinating character, an interesting location, or a dramatic situation, one piece simply won’t be enough all by itself.
You must have the location and background, the initial situation, and the protagonist solidly in mind before you can really start developing your story. Once you have at least the beginnings of all three of those aspects, then you can use character subjected to the stresses and limitations of the situation and place to plot your novel.
Where do we come up with ideas for any or all of these three aspects of story? The first step is to be open to the ideas all around us. My husband has been going to enough mystery writers conferences and reading so many books that my friends have published that he’s almost as good as I am now about spotting a great location to find a body or have a showdown or set a mystery. (Yes, our conversations don’t bear overhearing—“It’s a perfect spot for an ambush,” “If you dumped a body back in there, it wouldn’t be found until some of those kids over there came nosing around.”) We will witness an awkward conversation or argument between people at a coffee shop or restaurant—be unwilling eavesdroppers to a loud cell phone argument—and speculate about how that state of affairs could provide motive for murder and a volatile situation ready for a precipitating incident.
Pay attention to the people around you, their conversations and their actions. Ask, “What if?” Those two little words are the most valuable tools of the novelist at the beginning of the book. What if a Puritan woman whose husband was gone had an illicit love affair and got pregnant? What if a crazed whaling captain decided to go after the monster whale that took off his leg? What if a poor and plain but intelligent and strong-willed girl in Victorian England refused to be a victim and eventually wound up the governess at a scary mansion for a harsh employer with whom she fell in love? What if scientists could recreate living dinosaurs from the DNA in prehistoric dinosaur bones? What if a giant white shark began to terrorize a beach resort town? All those novels and movies arose from writers asking themselves, “What if?”
You never know when you will encounter that grain of sand around which you can build the pearl of character and/or situation. Henry James once famously said, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” And remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Character is plot, plot is character.”
Keep notebooks always with you to capture ideas and bits of description of places, characters, or situations you see or overhear. Keep these large and small notebooks by your bed, in your purse or pocket, inside your cell phone or tablet, in your briefcase/bookbag, on your laptop or desktop computer, beside all the chairs in which you regularly sit. Use them also to note down interesting ideas and bits from books that you read.
Create an idea file with newspaper articles, internet items, and stories you hear from others. Some of my friends and family send me interesting items of news or research they come across. Even if it’s not something that necessarily sparks my interest—and it usually doesn’t since what catches my interest seldom catches other people’s and vice versa—I tuck it away. Because I never know when it might give me an idea of something I need for a book I’m writing based on one of the fragments of news or research that did catch my interest.
Combine ideas from your notebooks and idea file. Read over both when you’re plotting a new book and let them soak into your subconscious. You never know what bit of this or piece of that will become a vital part of your storyline in some intriguing way. Let your active plotting, your notes, and your idea file build on one another as you’re creating characters, situations, motivations, and actions for your story. Maybe the combination of two or three of these ideas and notes together will offer the complexity you need.
Start right away with two documents—a list of questions about the characters, locations, situation, and story/plot actions to which you’ll add constantly at the beginning and a first-draft journal or a document of first-draft notes. These can be written by hand in a notebook or in a computer document. The important thing is to have these documents or something very like them and to write in them, thinking on paper about your fictional place, people, and plot. Another useful document I’ve discovered is a list of scenes you want to see or write in the book—at the very beginning of the process before you really know what else will happen. In the sample documents at the end of the book, you will find copies of these three documents that I used in writing one of my own novels, and we will discuss ways in which you can use your own versions of these documents.
Linda Rodriguez Bio
Linda Rodriguez's book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel is based on her popular workshop. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear in June, 2017. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.