Friday, July 26, 2013

Crisis of Character

by Peg Brantley
Evocative Characters. Intriguing Crime. Compelling Stories.

"What's your next book going to be about?"

"Can't say, but you're gonna love it!"


Like most writers, I have file folders (on my computer and in a file cabinet) filled with story ideas, not to mention all the "what if" scenarios that roll around my head on a daily basis. I figured I could write a story a month for the next five years and not run out of material.

Recently, when my attention was focused more on family than plots, I began to feel a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the story I was building. Nothing specific mind you, but a general "ugh-ness" to the story. I didn't feel the spark, and considering arson played a huge role in my concept, not having a spark was concerning.

After all of the research, the hours gathering information and creating different scenarios, I was unmotivated to continue.

Not to worry, I thought. I'll just open up all of those idea files, I thought. I'll find the perfect plot replacement, I thought.

I thought wrong.

What I learned with that little exercise is that while I have a gazillion different story ideas, very few of them actually translate to novel material. In fact, I couldn't find one I was excited about.

I wanted to fling myself off the highest Colorado cliff I could find. End the agony. Stop the train before it derailed and took others with it.

And then…

It hit me.

My post two weeks ago talked about the kind of antagonist shrinks might find intriguing. I'd sort of picked out a general profile, but I hadn't developed that character.

Although as a crime fiction writer plot is important, of equal importance to me are the characters. Until I had this one major player fleshed out a little more, I wasn't going to be happy with anything.

After tackling the bad guy, my arson-ish plot is sizzling again and I'm feeling a little better. For now.

Writers: How do you find your sizzle? Is it always plot or is it character?

Readers: What are you more drawn to? Plot or characters?


  1. It has to be both, of course. But in crime fiction, plot is critical! Especially when writing a series, because the protagonists are already developed. For me(and hopefully my readers too), motive and complexity are what keep my stories humming.

    Is this a standalone? Either way, a great antagonist is always a plus.

    1. I agree that plot is critical in the type of fiction we write. What I've learned is that, for me, I have to have more than a general idea of my characters to be satisfied with the plot. This is the first time I tried to go in without a fully formed person in my head. Apparently, I can't do it that way.

      This will be a Chase Waters, and all of the characters from THE MISSINGS and RED TIDE will at least have a mention.

  2. Thrillers and mysteries have to have a solid premise, but I think it all boils down to the characters. If the author doesn't know who they are, I don't think the readers are going to get excited about the bomb hidden under the cruise ship.

    In Hit or Missus, I have a group of four women who may or may not be villains. I was unhappy with the story, unsure of why it was taking the road it was on, and generally wrestling with every word on the page. It finally dawned on me that I had made a nondescript character clump, instead of four distinct women with their own voices and reasons to do things. Once I separated them into believable characters, the story fell into place.

    From that moment on, I don't start writing a book until I've met the major characters up close and personal.

    1. Yep. That's what happened with this one. I was fighting it, deciding that the plot stunk, and then finally realized I wasn't getting my character taken care of the way I usually do.

      I may not be fast, but I'm slow.

  3. If the characters don't grab you, the plot doesn't really matter. If you don't care about the main character, you're not going to care what happens to him. The protagonist (and often the antagonist) carry the story. It's critical to get readers to bond with your protagonist right from the first page, and want/need to follow her through the whole novel, worrying about her and rooting for her. That's why I think it's so important to start out your novel in the protagonist's viewpoint, right from the first sentence. Get us emotionally invested in her plight right from the start!

  4. (Deep breath-will resurface Tuesday or Wednesday-go)
    Character is plot; plot is character. That is all you write this life, and all you need to write. (with apologies to one of my favorite poets)
    Consider the great mystery/detective/thriller stories: Hound of the Baskervilles; Murder on the Orient Express; The Maltese Falcon - and on into more modern times. What makes them work? Holmes, Poirot, Spade. The plot does not exist outside the character, the character does not move - does not breathe - without a plot. Every story (plot) is a particular character's story. That's why though there may only be 3 or 7 basic plots, there are infinite stories. (Diving down)

  5. Characters first, in my view. Think of memorable characters in books and film--Hannibal Lecter, Scarlett O'Hara, James T. Kirk, Nurse Ratched, Dirty Harry, etc. They have motives and back stories that make them who they are--good, bad, or ugly, but never indifferent. It's what you've identified--that you really have to get to know those characters to *make* them memorable, to yourself, then to your readers.

    1. We're in agreement. And then put those memorable characters into the thick of things before making it even worse for them.

  6. I'm a plot person. I don't mind if a character/characters is/are unlikable, as long as they are believable and justified in what they do (good or bad). For me, it's plot - and the twister, the better. After I've read a great book, I rarely remember the characters, but I usually remember what happened (plot).

    1. You seem to be unique to our little band of writer/readers. ;-) It would have to be one hell of a plot to get me to keep reading if I didn't like the main character.

    2. I absolutely agree, Peg. If I don't bond with the main character, I won't keep reading. And I often forget the plot, but I always remember the best characters, the most multi-dimensional memorable characters - for years to come.

    3. What can I say - I guess I'm not a people person ;-)

  7. Mark me with the majority on Characters.

    Plots are wonderful and fun and thrilling (etc), but great characters breathe independent of their stories.

    I would read almost anything new revolving around my favorite characters, Travis McGee and Spenser--but both authors no longer walk among us. I feel the same way now about Jack Reacher and Virgil Flowers, and don't hesitate for a minute to buy their newest installments.

    Any time I find a new character who comes vividly to life in my mind, when I find that I cannot wait to see what happens next time to him or her--that's a time to celebrate the joy of reading.

    Nor can I imagine any greater reward for a writer than to realize he or she has brought to life a character powerful enough to evoke these emotions!

    1. Well said, Jim. Thanks for sharing your opinion!

    2. Jim, if you haven't read any Robert Crais yet, check his books out! I loved his characters Joe Pike and Elvis Cole!

  8. For me everything follows from the characters and their daily jobs and the way they interact. That is... after I've established the topic. If I have the topic, everything else including the plot sort of follows. In my crime series there are other things going on than usual in the genre because I believe there's room for new stuff.

    So I guess I agree with more people here. If asked to write a story without plot I could do it with my characters. But if asked to write a story with a plot with no real characters to work with, nothing would happen I guess.

  9. Thanks for joining us here, M.H., and continued success with your series!


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