Every author has been there. You have a new idea for a book and the first thing anyone asks is, ‘What’s it about?’ No one ever says, “Who are the characters?’ As we all know, no one wants to read a book that’s about nothing. Books have to have a story that keeps pulling you from the beginning to the end.
And yet I have read a vast many novels whose plots are highly celebrated, whose authors have the knack of keeping you on the edge of your seat, but very often, once I’ve reached the end, I’ve had the strangest feeling that something was missing.
Usually, what’s lacking is that sense that the characters are thoroughly believable “human” beings with a range of deeply-mined emotions, and that certain je ne sais quoi which makes them react with the utmost plausibility to the situations they find themselves in.
Often they are quirky – think Girl on the Train – but sometimes it’s their normalness that’s their greatest power. I get them. I have met them. I am them. Or I want to find myself in a room with them, just so I can watch them as I relish all that I know about them. When a character comes to life in the deepest, truest, most human way, one thing I never do is forget them.
My belief is most writers can come up with a plot. Whether it’s brilliant is another thing!
Generally, it’s a process. You can read books on how to do it. You can follow the three-act structure common to screenwriting. You can develop it within an inch of its life, or wing it with only a start and end point in mind (a bit like I do). In my experience, there can be something very soulless about starting at a beginning, joining dots, adding twists and turns until you reach an end, and in a way that’s why I hate doing it.
Of course it’s great when some of the turns surprise you. But sometimes they will leave you cold, or at an emotional distance that frustrates you. I have read many intricately plotted stories that go off the deep end – in an effort to shock you, the heart comes right out of it and the writer is firing only with the head. There is a huge market for these stories. The current wave of psychological thrillers has given us loads of these, I find.
But stories about very real characters never go away – what’s more, you somehow feel the story would be nothing without them. Who can forget Delores Price in She’s Come Undone? Or the mysterious Mark Costley in Apple Tree Yard? There are ways to develop characters, and books you can read on that too, but a fascinating, believable human being in fiction somehow gets on the page because of magic rather than method.
As a writer, there is nothing more rewarding than finishing my novel and feeling that my characters have come such a long way from the sketchy idea I had of them in the beginning. How I get there is painful – I never truly know who a character is until I’ve finished my first draft, and often my second and third. (I actually hate calling them characters, because in my mind they are very much people and “characters” somehow constrains them to fiction).
I will have all elements in place; in theory, after all my effort, I should be sitting on a book I can be proud of, and yet… Something will be nagging at me. It’s not that they’re not one-dimensional; I’ve been writing for long enough now to spot those a mile off. They have goals; I know what they want, what they need to do, what their conflict is.
There is a fairly clear character arc, which is so very important… And yet for days, weeks, (and in the case of my current novel, After You Left, a few years), something will be missing. Then one day, quite out of the blue (usually when I am out driving by myself on a fairly long stretch of highway) it will suddenly dawn on me. I will see it so clearly – and yet I can’t pinpoint right here, in the writing of this article, what it even is.
Generally, there will be something about the person that I haven’t defined or developed quite enough to make the outcome of the story entirely plausible. And yet the story is plausible. I am sure the reader would be more than satisfied with how it plays out. But they might just as easily forget it by the time they’ve finished the next novel in their reading pile. Whatever that “it” is for me, it’s to do with a certain humanity, a particular truth, an honesty or wisdom that somehow adds to our understanding of the fascinating complexity of human nature. Once my people have that, I feel my job is done. That one little missing ingredient magically makes sense of everything else.
Carol Mason is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of After You Left, and three other women’s fiction novels – The Secrets of Married Women, Send Me A Lover and The Love Market. She’s a Brit who married a Canadian and she lives just outside of Vancouver. Carol’s books have been widely reviewed in the international media – everywhere from Australia’s Cosmopolitan to Britain’s Financial Times. When not writing, she is generally reading other people’s novels but feeling guilty that she’s not working on her own. Here’s her Amazon Author’s page. Or you can visit her website. www.carolmasonbooks.com
ABOUT AFTER YOU LEFT
An Amazon Charts bestseller.
You want to know what the worst thing is? It’s not the embarrassment, or the looks on people’s faces when I tell them what happened. It isn’t the pain of him not being there—loneliness is manageable. The worst thing is not knowing why.
When Justin walks out on Alice on their honeymoon, with no explanation apart from a cryptic note, Alice is left alone and bewildered, her life in pieces.
Then she meets Evelyn, a visitor to the gallery where she works. It’s a seemingly chance encounter, but Alice gradually learns that Evelyn has motives, and a heartbreaking story, of her own. And that story has haunting parallels with Alice’s life.
As Alice delves into the mystery of why Justin left her, the questions are obvious. But the answers may lie in the most unlikely of places…
Buy the book HERE