Friday, December 30, 2011

A long time ago when I was writing my second book, one the characters I was trying to manipulate into committing a heinous crime said to me, “You can’t make me do that.” This might seem surprising, an invented being rising from the pages to address his creator, but judging from what my writing friends say, it’s a common occurrence. 

This particular character was named Norman. He was a gay gossip columnist for a well-known newspaper and he’d never done anything more violent than sling pointed verbal criticism at the nouveaux riches and the events which they frequented and he had to attend.  What I wanted was for Norman to kill somebody—the plot in my novel required it, and Norman was more than recalcitrant; he flat out refused. His logic was unassailable: I had not constructed him to do this. There was nothing in his make-up that suggested a capability for mayhem. Indeed, Norman was a quiet soul more given to reflections on the state of modern poetry than to ever considering manslaughter and violence.  

What to do… The book had been rolling along with almost 350 pages finished and having Norman not perform as intended would really screw things up. Somebody had to off the bad guy, and quickly.

In the end, I had to rewrite a couple of chapters. Norman stayed the gentle soul he was from the start, and I altered Marylin, the main female character enough so she could bludgeon the bad guy without complaining, so it all worked out and everyone (except the bad guy) ended up living happily ever after.

The way I write often involves having characters that are not sure of where they’re going—because pretty often, I don’t know where I’m going either. Even if I have a general plot idea, details don’t emerge or firm up until I’m actually faced with a situation I have to resolve. Plus, I like characters more than I like plotting, so I’m far more likely to bend plot to fit characters than vice versa.

This may be because I’m one of those people who concur with Samuel Johnson that fiction is limited to a few plots “with very little variation.” In fact, I’m convinced there  are only seven plots available:
  1. (wo)man versus nature
  2. (wo)man versus man
  3. (wo)man versus the environment
  4. (wo)man versus technology
  5. (wo)man versus self
  6. (wo)man versus the supernatural
  7. (wo)man versus god/religion

Christopher Booker, author of Seven Basic Plots—Why We Tell Stories believes these plots deal with:
  1. Overcoming the ‘monster’
  2. The quest
  3. Journey and return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. Rags to riches

But even with limited plotting, there are unlimited characters to be created. In fact, the palette of human behavior and emotions allows us to construct an endless series of fascinating and believable characters whose lives evolve within the seven plot lines. That’s the fun of writing.

I try to listen to my characters. When I don’t, the story line gets into trouble and becomes less than readable and short of realistic. And the thing I’ve come to accept is, pretty often my characters know more about my writing than I do.

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