Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Build a solid story around a strong character: a bestselling noveliststresses that you can begin working on plot and other narrativeelements only after you know your protagonist to his core.(FROM THEWRITER ARCHIVE).

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In her book on writing, Mytery and Manners, Flannery O'Connor relates an oft-quoted anecdote about writing the story "Good Country People," in which a Bible salesman steals the wooden leg of a lonely, unattractive woman. O'Connor stated that she herself didn't know her character was going to commit the theft until 10 or 12 lines before he actually did it, at which point she realized it had been "inevitable" all along. Studying her craft, applying and reapplying its principles, working not only to convey a vision of the world, but to develop one in the first place--all those things and more, O'Connor stressed, went into the "accident," so that it wasn't accidental at all.

Often one reads advice about how to structure a plot, or create scenes with oomph, or craft dialogue that singes the ear, and all of this is relevant, yet it's useless if you don't know how to build character. As Aristotle wrote, "Character is action." In other words, character is plot; character is dialogue; character is scene. You must have one before you can have the other, and character is the only element intrinsic to the equation. It is the sole building block; everything else rises from it.

Character, then, is your foundation. All other components--dialogue, your facility with language, an original story line--are merely floors. And while a solid foundation doesn't make a building (and thus, plenty of stories with strong central characters can still fail because the rest of the structure leaks), no building can survive without one.

Yet, countless buildings can and do survive without an eighth or ninth floor. That is to say, a story with a few strong characters can occasionally survive a weak plot, but a story with a strong plot cannot--ever--survive weak characters. Because if you don't care about who the what is happening to, then you won't care about the what in the first place.

Fully drawn characters

This is not to contend that all characters must be likable. They don't, not even main characters. They just have to be real, vivid, multidimensional, recognizable as members of the human race, so that their actions, no matter how potentially bizarre--stealing a woman's wooden leg, for example--are ultimately understandable and seemingly inevitable.


When someone speaks of an unsuccessful book or movie or play and says, "It didn't make sense," often what he or she really means is, "The characters' actions didn't make sense," and the reason the actions (read: plot) didn't make sense is because the characters themselves weren't fully drawn.

Plot, you see, is nothing but the acting out of the main character's internal struggle. All drama, eventually, is about explicating one or more characters' souls. That's it.

The Silence of the Lambs concerns a serial killer and the race to catch him before he kills again, but it is about Clarice Starling's coming to terms with who she is in relation to both her past (the lambs) and her present (their eventual silence at the book's end).

The Great Gatsby concerns a guy named Gatsby who chases a lost love and ultimately loses everything because of it, but it is about the effect of Gatsby's fall on the evolution and self-awareness of Nick Carraway and Nick's realization that the "foul dust that preyed on Gatsby" is a dust he himself is a part of, if not by action then at least by birthright.

Without Clarice Starling's evolution, Silence is just another serialkiller book; without Carraway's evolution, Gatsby is just a perverse Horatio Alger story with a depressing coda. The plots of the books are not what set them apart; the characters are.

When I wrote my first novel, A Drink Before the War, I started with a character. That's all I had. And the character in my head was not Patrick Kenzie, the protagonist of the novel; it was his deceased father, Edgar, aka "The Hero," a man who was, in Irish-American vernacular, a "street angel/house devil."

I created a man who was a hero fireman and, later in life, a beloved city councilor, cherished by all except his family whom he abused and tortured and generally treated in a very, very bad manner. Yet, as I wrote about him, I found myself slipping into the first-person point of view, which told me the character I was really writing about was his son. And so, in the best biblical sense, Patrick was begot by Edgar.

So, now I had this guy, a private investigator whose father was evil, yet loved by the general public. What kind of man would the son be? He'd hate hypocrisy, for one. He'd have a mistrust of politicians. He'd have a keen sense of injustice and an identification with those who are abused--by families, by government, by society in general. He would also, logic told me, have his father's temper. And maybe, I told myself, he'd be a bit self-righteous; he'd have a lot of anger, and anger often turns into self-righteousness.

OK. I had my character. What kind of case would explicate him?

He gets hired by politicians to find a cleaning woman who, it turns out, is being sought for far different reasons than the ones Patrick was given. When she dies, he realizes he's been used not only to find her but also to lead her to the spot of her assassination.

He also discovers she has an abused son, who's grown into a feared gang leader locked in a death struggle with his father, who's in bed with the politicians. And because Patrick is white and caught in the middle of a black-on-black gang war, he also has to (involuntarily) confront his own racism. And the result isn't one he'd have necessarily hoped for.

The process of defining my main character ultimately led me into the core of what my novel was about: race warfare as class warfare; violence as a multi-generational disease; white-collar crime as a far more insidious transgression than blue-collar crime; child abuse as a hamster wheel from which no one--victim or victimizer--can vacate once they've stepped on and started pedaling. And all of this--along with some hopefully whizz-bang shoot-outs, car chases, betrayals and unmaskings--stemmed from one character. Who begot another. Who begot another.

Characters at home

So, character is the foundation, yes. But how do we build a solid character?

A former professor of mine, the novelist John Dufresne, expressed one theory I've always liked a lot. Dufresne used to teach that one way to successfully envision a character is to imagine her in a room of her home and then make a list of the items you see there. It seems implausibly simple, but that's the beauty of it. Are her clothes on the floor or neatly hung, and what kind of clothes are they? What's in her CD rack? What magazines fan out across her coffee table? What titles line her bookcase, or does she have a bookcase?

Once you've answered some of these questions, you haven't created a character yet, but you have found a way in to her psyche. You've laid brick No. 1 of the foundation.

For more bricks, go back to Aristotle. If character is action, have your character in this room you've designed do something. Have her cook or answer the phone or go out, or whatever you choose, but have her act and act as soon as possible.

A telltale sign of student fiction tends to be pages and pages of character description--what the character looks like, what's in her room, what she ate for breakfast--without any action.

Frankly, that's boring, and worse, it shows lack of confidence: It shows the writer trying to figure out the character on the page, as opposed to knowing the character before the first page is written and then gradually defining her for the reader. All of those details--looks, room, eating habits, etc.--can come out through action. A character can see her reflection in the window of her car as she's walking toward it. And you can then describe what she looks like with the narrative already in motion. (Where is she going? Why? And how come she's driving so fast?)

This isn't to say that you, the writer, have to know the character inside and out before you write about her. Half the fun of writing comes in the discovery process. Usually, you write your way into a character. Now, if this seems to contradict what I mentioned above--that the writer should know the character before the first page is written--let me explain that when I refer to that first page, I'm referring to the first page you'd actually allow someone to read, the first fit-to-be-published page, which is usually about the 20th page you write. Which is one way of saying, that if you don't rewrite, you don't write. You type.

The core to building character is rewriting. You need to know everything that's in your character's apartment, so write it down. You need to know who her first boyfriend was, what her first car smelled like, the name of her childhood pet, if she got along with her parents, why she doesn't like mustard. And you learn all those things by writing them down.

And then when you know them--when you, in fact, know your character--you cut most of that stuff out or shape it into moments of action, thereby creating plot. Ernest Hemingway called it the tip-of-the-iceberg theory: What shows up in fiction in regard to character is the very tip of an iceberg peeking up above the waterline. But there's a whole lot of iceberg below the waterline that the audience never sees--and that is what you know about your character.

And as Hemingway put it, if there isn't more iceberg beneath the surface, the audience might not be able to see it, but they can sense it, and they will put your book or story aside. But if you do know your character, the audience will sense that, too, feel it in the confidence of your prose and the certainty of your narrative arc, and your readers will then follow wherever you lead.

Less ultimately equals more. The more you know about your character, the less you have to show. I know what my main protagonist, Patrick Kenzie, looks like, but it's only recently that fans have begun noticing that they don't. Because he's a first-person narrator, I would find it odd if he described himself, so the only physical descriptions the reader gets of him come from other characters, and those descriptions are few and far between.

I know who his childhood sweetheart was, which sports he played badly as a child, what's in his kitchen cupboard, who his favorite high school teachers were, and what his college GPA was, but none of that, thus far, has been germane to the plots of the five novels in which he's appeared, and so, it stays in my head, not on the page.

When you tell a story, think of it as if you're doing it live, sitting around the proverbial campfire. You're trying to keep people entertained, and if you don't, they'll nod off, or wander back into their tents, or go find someone else to entertain them. So, in order to hold them at your side, hanging on your words, you have to make those words count. You have to make them vivid and enticing and brief. You have to get to the heart of all your narrative elements--character, plot, dialogue--concisely.

If you learn how to do that, through the creation of fully fleshed-out characters and merciless rewriting, then your "happy accidents" will occur. And by the time you're really good at what you do, they won't seem all that accidental.

Dennis Lehane is the bestselling author of The Given Day, Mystic River, Shutter Island and other books. His most recent novel, Moonlight Mile, which features Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, is out this month. Web:

Source Citation
Lehane, Dennis. "Build a solid story around a strong character: a bestselling novelist stresses that you can begin working on plot and other narrative elements only after you know your protagonist to his core." The Writer Nov. 2010: 22. General OneFile. Web. 13 Oct. 2010.
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