I have always read across genre lines—from literary to popular to classic to YA and back again—and wondered when I’d hear about readers who would stick to a single genre or, even more extreme, a single type of book within a genre. Since it wasn’t the type of book that was attracting me, I assumed there had to be something about the particular author’s voice that drew me in. But that didn’t seem quite right either, because I’d read book after book after book by some authors even when I’d repeatedly find myself thinking, as I was reading their newest,, “This is terrible writing, Even I could do better than this!”
And, I thank God for those authors, btw, because I don’t know that I’d have been able to get through the writing of my first book without them!
I have to credit my fellow author Amelia June for clueing me in to what was really attracting me to all those books, in all those genres, by all those different authors. It was the characters all along.
Now, as a writer, I’m a big time plotter. I’ll freely admit I can’t even begin to write a book without knowing ahead of time where I’m going and how I’m getting there. I admire the hell out of those writers who can just sit down and start pounding out a story from pretty much nothing at all. But I can’t—and probably never will be able to—do that.
So, sure, I love my characters and probably the best compliment I could get as a writer is for someone to tell me that one or more of my characters came to life for him or her, but are characters more important than story? How could they be? Why, I’ve left some of my very favorite characters languishing in a scene for months on end for the simple reason that I had no idea where they were going or how I was going to get them there. I couldn’t write their story because I didn’t know what it was yet.
So, obviously, I must think plot is more important than character, right? Well, not exactly.
Reading and writing are two different things, after all. When I’m writing a book, plot may very well be king, but, when it comes to reading, I’m all about the characters. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.
But how do we go about creating the kinds of characters that readers will find compelling? Again, I think the answer to that question is as individual and varied as there are writers to ask it.
Just as writers have been divided into the categories of plotters and pantsers (those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’ so to speak) I suspect how we create characters can be broken down into two main methods that (probably not incidentally) tend to follow a similar, albeit opposite, pattern.
Pantsers are notorious for being among those writers who cannot discuss a story too much ahead of time for fear they’ll find themselves ‘all talked out’ and no longer motivated to actually write the story. Most plotters, on the other hand, can talk (and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk) for days about their stories and only end up more motivated.
Likewise, when it comes to creating well-rounded characters, there are authors who find character sheets invaluable. They’ll fill out forms asking for all the most minute details of their characters lives: What was his favorite toy as a child? What was the name of her first pet? Did he ever break any bones—and when and how? Does she play sports—and how well and how long and what position? What’s his mother’s maiden name? What’s her favorite shade of nail polish? What’s his favorite breakfast cereal? Does she have a dark secret she doesn’t share with anyone? And on and on and on.
Me? I can’t stand the sight of those things! Nothing makes me lose interest in a character faster than trying to pin them down on all these (to me) unimportant points And, once again, I don’t think I’m alone. From what I’ve seen, pantsers do better with character sheets than plotters.
So here comes the theory: I believe that, to a very large degree, character IS plot. The story that I meticulously plot and the seemingly serendipitous, unplotted stories created by my pantser fellow authors will only work if our characters breathe life into them.
I think we all start out asking ourselves the same two questions: Who are these people and what will they do next? And then we take reverse approaches to arrive at what are, basically, the same answers.
Pantsers, I believe, are more likely to figure out who their characters are first, and then let them lead them into their story. Plotters are more likely to let their characters reveal themselves through their actions (ie the plot). In both cases, however, I’m quite sure it’s the characters who are calling the shots.
They’re the Pied Pipers of the tale, after all, for both reader and writer. Give us a great character, piping his or her own, uniquely compelling tune, and we’ll all happily follow wherever they lead us whether that’s over the rainbow or to the ends of the earth.
You can get more info on PG's book, Love From A to Z, at her website.