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.