The Elements of Fiction: Character

My last post on the Elements of Fiction dealt with plot, and it was hard to lock that topic down without morphing into this topic – characters. The two go hand-in-hand, just like peanut butter and jelly (I’m not a big fan of peas and carrots).

I said before that the plot IS the story, and without plot, you don’t have a story. Well, without characters, you don’t have a story either. Plot tells what happens, and the characters are the people to whom the plot happens.

I also stated before that the seed for my first novel began with a character. Once I discovered WHO this character was, the answers to the questions I had began to take shape.

A story usually has a “protagonist,” or main character, who wants or needs something and an “antagonist,” or the person or thing which opposes the protagonist from achieving his or her goal. Sounds simple enough. But of course, it’s not really that simple.

The protagonist must be special, someone the reader can immediately relate to, engage with, and root for. He or she must be both strong and fallible, real and flawed but also admirable and heroic.

Some novels may have a cast of characters that collectively represent a protagonist. Think Justice League of America. Or if you’re not a comic book nerd like me, think of the cast of movies such as The Breakfast Club or The Dirty Dozen. Each character has his or her own “story within the story.” Each has a personal demon to fight or circumstance to overcome. But their stories intertwine to form a whole entity that must prevail against a common antagonist.

Most books on writing will tell you, though, that this is hard to accomplish within a novel. Because a reader needs someone to latch on to, your story would be best suited by pulling out one strong protagonist for the reader to follow throughout the journey that is the novel. Otherwise, the reader might feel pulled in too many directions and can’t really focus on one particular character to identify with. They won’t have the same loyalty to a wide cast of characters that they will to one main character.

Now, this idea can shift according to genre. For romance and romantic suspense novels, there should be two main characters – the hero and heroine. Obviously, since the main point of a romance is for two people to fall in love, you must have two main characters who are both striving toward a common goal – to be in love. These novels will still have an antagonist – something that keeps them from reaching their goal. For a romance, it could be a person or persons. Perhaps a rival love interest, an angry ex, or even society that keeps them apart.

For romantic suspense, the antagonist usually takes the form of some kind of danger – a deadly threat to either the hero or heroine or both. Because of the suspense element, the two main characters are usually somehow involved in a criminal investigation, murder mystery, or a threat to the safety of others. Many of these characters have jobs in law enforcement, the military, or other public safety agency.

In the next few posts, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my characters (without revealing too much about the plot of the story!).

What kind of characters do you relate to the most? Are there certain traits that draw you to a character? Name a character who made a strong impression on you (for good or bad). Share in the comments.

The Elements of Fiction: Plot

The “plot” of a story is one of the most important things about it, if not THE most important. Because the plot IS the story. It’s the answer to “What is your story about?” Without a plot, you would just have characters sitting around somewhere doing nothing. And no one wants to read that, no matter how interesting, exotic, or eccentric the characters are.

Some authors began writing their stories with the plot already in mind, and fill in the characters as they develop the story idea. Others may begin with a character, and then decide what that character’s journey will be, which develops into the plot.

The seed for my first novel began years ago with a character. I could picture it, like a scene from a movie playing out in my head. A female, strong, independent, put into a situation where she felt insecure and lost. Out of her element, in other words. She was in a small Southern town, but she was from somewhere else – a big city. And she had to learn to navigate her new surroundings.

My first question was, “Who is she?” And the next question was, “How did she get there?” Followed by, “Why was she there? And what was she doing there?” As I began pondering those questions, the ideas for the story and the characters began to form in my imagination.

I had to figure out who she was and then I had to give her a reason to be there. And once I figured that out, the other ideas began to fall into place. Now, it took years for those first ideas to formulate into something that resembled a plot. Well, a good plot anyway. Because a story has to be good, of course.

A plot is like the vine that my co-worker had growing out of its pot and up around his floor lamp in his office – it grows, and it changes as it grows. It starts from a small seed of an idea and morphs into something that takes on a life of itself. A plot idea must be many things: interesting, fresh and new, believable, but also engaging to the reader, unexpected, twisty and surprising, and solid enough to carry an entire novel.

But it begins with just one idea.

What kind of plots do you enjoy? Murder, mystery, suspense, thriller, romance, drama? Do you prefer character-driven plots or action-driven plots?

The Elements of Fiction: Setting – Part 2

In the last post, I mentioned the various aspects that go into creating a story. One of them is the setting. As in, time period and location in which a story takes place.

Today, I’d like discuss another facet of setting: the season in which the story takes place.

For my first novel, the story occurs during Springtime in Georgia. Southern Springs can be volatile times, with thunderstorms and tornadoes mixed in with days that range from warm and humid to cool and breezy. For this particular story, storms play a big role in the action that takes place. So I set the story in April. It’s one of the stormiest months in Georgia.

The next story in this series will happen during the long, hot days of summer. And the final story in this trilogy will happen during the winter as the protagonist will face an ice storm, another common weather occurrence in northern Georgia.

Each of these seasons affects the story in specific ways. So it was important for me to get the timeline just right so that nature itself becomes a sort of “character” in the story.

What do I mean by that? When you place your main character (the protagonist, or the “hero” or “heroine”) into a story, he or she will face many things. I’ll discuss plotting and character “goals” in a later post, but for now, we know that this character will go through some sort of struggle, trial, adventure, or journey from the beginning of the story to the end. Along the way, he or she will interact with other characters in the story, whether they are secondary characters or the antagonist (also known as the “villain” or the person or thing who opposes the main character).

A writer can use setting as an additional “character,” meaning the setting itself has a bearing on the story and the characters in ways that alter the character or thwart his or her ability to reach the goal.

Think of a character being stranded on an isolated island. If his goal is to get off the island and return to his normal life, the island’s location itself will work against the character to keep him from getting home. The weather, the plant life or animal life on the island (or the lack of life on the island),the dangers lurking in the jungles – all of these can create obstacles and threats to the character.

I think of the actor and martial arts expert, Jackie Chan. In an interview, I heard him say that the way he comes up with his martial arts choreography for a movie scene is to just put himself on the set where the scene will take place. He looks around at the things the set designers have put there as set decoration. He picks things up, plays with them, moves them around, and comes up with ways he can use these things in a fight scene. And then he creates the fight choreography from that.

I think a writer does much the same thing, whether consciously or not. Each scene has a location, and that location has a “set design.” And you can use the set decorations of the setting to add life and flavor, conflict and obstacles for your characters.

When my main character, Samantha, finds herself on a farm in Georgia, she finds herself out of her element and in strange, unfamiliar surroundings since she grew up in Chicago. The readers get to see parts of her personality in the way she tries to adapt to her new surroundings. And even more than that, the farm is a reflection of her father, a man she never knew.

Through the farm, she learns about her father. It represents her internal struggle of forgiving him, and her internal struggle of finding herself. It is both a place of discomfort, raw emotion, and even danger to her, but also is a place of peace and healing.

Have you ever thought about how a setting can work either for or against the characters in a story? Think of a scene from your favorite story. What pieces of the setting did the author use to work for or against the characters? Share your thoughts in a comment.


The Elements of Fiction: Setting – Part 1

What goes into writing a novel? Obviously, a good story and interesting characters. As I’ve studied the craft of writing – and, yes, it is a craft to be studied, learned, practiced, and improved – I have discovered that there is more to a story than just the “story.”

As I mentioned in an earlier post, many stories begin with a “What if” question or a spark of an idea. But once the idea is formed, then what? How does a writer get from “Once upon a time…” to “The End”?

There are a number of things to consider. In the next few posts, I’d like to explore the various aspects that go into a story and how they affect how the book takes shape.

One thing that must be decided on early in the process is the setting. Where does the story take place? Sometimes the setting is important to the story, such as a political thriller set in Washington, D.C. Or a romance set in a romantic coastal town.

For my story, I chose to set it in a small Southern town. After all, a common piece of advice to writers is to “write what you know.” I grew up in a small Southern town, so that type of setting, the people who live there, the social graces, and the relationships that grow there are as familiar to me as my own home. There is something special, sentimental, and almost utopian about small towns. And Southern people have so much character and flavor to their personalities. I wanted to portray these to both people who live there and those who have never been south of the Mason-Dixon line.

However, I chose to create a fictional town as I didn’t want to set the story in an actual town – neither the one I grew up in nor any of the ones close by. The characters and the plot of the story are completely made up and not based on anyone or anything I know in “real life.” I chose to make up the town as well to keep anyone from thinking I had patterned the story after one of them.

Sometimes the setting isn’t so much about the place as it is the time. Is the story a contemporary one – meaning, is it set in “modern” times? That could mean today or a few years or even a decade ago. Or is it “futuristic,” meaning the story happens at some point in the future? Or is the story “historical”? Most publishers consider a novel historical if it takes place before the 1950s. Some may say the 1960s or 70s. It’s debatable. But it’s important to know WHEN the story happens in order to get the setting just right.

My story is “contemporary” as opposed to historical. Although I didn’t name a particular year, it is clear that the story could take place today, last year, next year, etc. Historical novels are very interesting, and I enjoy reading them on occasion. But writing one requires a lot of research into the details of the time period in order to present the story accurately. Writing a contemporary story still requires a good bit of research, too, but it’s a whole different type of research than what is needed for a historical novel.

What times of settings do you like in a story? Is there a particular place or time period that you are drawn to? Or have you ever considered the setting and how it affects a story? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.


Questions I Ask Myself

I’ve been working through the beta reader feedback and the last of the critiques of the chapters from my critique group.

Now that the story is all out there on the pages, the characters are formed, the plot is set, and the message is embedded, I find myself pondering the greater questions. Here’s one that came to mind recently: Is this story compelling?

This topic was discussed in a writing article I read, and I don’t remember where or I would put a link here, but here’s the idea: A story needs to be compelling and needs to include a topic or related incidents that readers want to read about.

So I ask, is MY story compelling? Is the topic and/or related incidents something that MY readers will want to read about?

I know the answer will be different for everyone, but I hope that for the most part, people will find my story compelling. Here’s how I answered this question to myself:

What is compelling about my story? Sam searching for her father’s killer, but more than that, she is searching for a relationship with the father she never knew. Which also relates to her relationship with God as her Father. I want the readers to care about Gabriel so that they want/need Sam to find out what really happened to him.

Not everyone will relate to the fact that Sam is estranged from her father. I know that her relationship with Gabriel, or lack thereof, is the very opposite of my relationship with my own dad. We are very close, and I’ve always been a “Daddy’s girl.”

But, I think that’s part of what made me want to explore this story and how Sam was affected by growing up without her father. I can’t relate to that, so I wanted to discover Sam’s story and try to understand how that situation felt to her.

I think the idea of dads and daughters is a universal one, as is the way we relate to God as our Father. I’m hoping that the character of Sam and her journey is a compelling idea that will resonate with readers long after they turn the last page.

Tell me what makes a story compelling to you? What about a story do you relate to most? The characters? The setting? The plot? What do you look for in a great read? Leave a comment below and let me know.


The What If Question

One of the most asked questions writers get is “How do you come up with your ideas for your stories?”

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that in general, story ideas begin at a certain starting point: asking “What if…”

The “What if” question can come from any small point of inspiration, and it can take a story in countless directions. Think of your favorite story. I bet you can come up with a “What if” question that goes with it.

For example, “What if a girl fell down a rabbit hole and found herself in a whole other world?” That would be Alice in Wonderland. How about this one? “What if a teenager was forced to compete in a fight to the death with other young people, for the entertainment value of a corrupted society?” That would be Hunger Games.

How about this one? “What if the man you thought you hated turned out to be the very man you were in love with?” This one is a bit more general, on purpose. It could probably go with many different stories. I’m thinking specifically of Pride and Prejudice, but do you see how a simple question could lead a writer in a thousand different directions?

The value of a “What if” question is that it can open up a world of ideas, and by asking and answering the question over and over again, you can eventually build a plot idea that turns into an entire book.

For me, the first “What if” question that I had for my first book was, “What if a woman grew up without a father? How would she relate to God as her Heavenly Father?” That question and the subsequent ones became the plot for Relentless Pursuit.

For Book 2, I started with this question: “What if Jake’s sister and Sam don’t get along?” Starting from that idea, I’ve been working through my “What if” questions for Book 2, and so far, I have over 2 pages of “What if” questions, each building from the answer to the one before it.

Some of them may never make it into the story, and some may lead down a useless “rabbit hole,” (haha), but in essence, all of them are important because they help to shape the idea into the story that it will become.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you think of a “What if” question for your favorite story? Leave a comment below to join in the conversation.

A Little Background

The book is out to the beta readers. My critique group is two chapters away from finishing the book. And I find myself in an odd place – NOT working on the book for a change!

After more than two years of slaving away on this book night after night, it feels weird to be taking a break.

My brain is still working, though, and lately I’ve been churning up a lot of ideas for Book # 2. I have a trilogy planned, and now that Book # 1 is at a resting stage, I find myself thinking ahead, daydreaming about what will happen in the next book.

I’m starting to sit down and get some of these ideas on paper, using my outlining class material and workbook to organize my thoughts.

The first time I set out to write a book, I wandered blindly through a few chapters, writing and re-writing and editing over and over, but never really making any progress past the first few chapters. Once I took the outlining class and got myself organized, the book flowed much quicker.

This time, I plan to do it differently. Start with the outline, flesh out the ideas, and then begin writing the first draft.

I thought you might like a peek into the process of what it takes to write a book, or at least MY process. Every writer is different, and each one has a unique process that brings him or her from idea to finished product.

Here are the steps that worked for me – beginning with a “map.”

This wasn’t actually part of the outlining class, but it came from a book I read called “The Writer’s Compass” by Nancy Ellen Dodd. I’m a visual learner and thinker, so the idea of “mapping” out your story made sense to me.

Here is a picture of my “story map,” which is still hanging on the closet door of my home office.


You probably can’t see it very well, and even if you could, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense. The point is that it divides your story into sections, and in each section, certain things need to happen to take the characters — and thereby the reader — through the story.

This is what got me started, but in my next post, I’ll talk more about what I learned in the outlining class.

As always, I covet your prayers for the book, that God will take it wherever He chooses, and that it will touch the lives He intends for it to impact. And pray for me, that I would continue to be faithful and obedient to do what He’s called me to do.

The Art of Writing

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker the other day about the art of writing. She asked how far along I was, and I responded with, “I’m on chapter 7.” She asked, “How many chapters are there?” And I answered, “I don’t know yet.”

I’m sure more experienced writers can tell you exactly how many chapters they plan to write, how long the book will be when it’s finished, and how many pages each chapter will be. Well, this is my first go at this, and I’m still learning just what it takes to write a full-length novel.

I’ve done a lot of research and still have a lot to learn, but from what I’ve read, a novel can be anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 words. I don’t know how that translates into the number of chapters, though.

As I explained to my co-worker, I just write in “scenes,” and start a new chapter when I need to. A “scene” is simply a part of the story, and just like in a movie, a scene has a beginning, middle, and end. Maybe a scene starts with two people driving down the road in a car. They have left from some place and are heading to another place. The middle is what happens on the drive. The ending can happen once they get to where they’re going. Maybe one character is being dropped off by the other character, who then leaves.

So now this character is the only one at the new location. That could be the beginning of a new scene, especially if the character encounters a new character to interact with. These two scenes could take place in the same chapter, depending on how long each scene is. Or if a scene ends and the next scene takes place at a different location or on a different day, that is a good time to start a new chapter.

Each scene should have a purpose. It must either move the action of the story along or give you some new information about a character or the plot. It could be a “flashback” of something that happened in the past that has to do with the plot or the character’s “backstory.” But it must have a point to make.

Some writers make “outlines” of their story, so that they know which scenes to write and in which order so that the story is organized and moves the action along. Other writers are called “pantsers,” meaning they fly by the seat of their pants, just letting the story take them in any direction, and seeing what happens along the way.

I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I know enough about my story that I have a rough outline and an idea of what needs to happen when and where. But the details are not tied down, so I write along and make it up as I go, putting in stuff I hadn’t thought about until that  moment. As long as I end up near where I wanted to be at the beginning, I think I’m okay.

Tonight as I was writing along in chapter 7, I realized that I should’ve ended the chapter a scene earlier. So I chopped out the remaining scene and started chapter 8 with it. Some of my chapters are much longer than others, but all of that will get better organized in another draft.

For now, I’m cruising along, taking in the scenery and enjoying the ride, seeing what new things I might explore. But all the while, I still have my GPS turned on, letting it remind me when to turn in case I get sidetracked.