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Character-driven or Plot-driven?
Why Not Both?

"Musings" - November 2007

by Margot Finke

I have heard this from many editors and agents; "We are looking for fresh, new, character-driven books." Check!  I have also chatted in schools with middle graders and older teens. These kids want fast-paced fun, excitement, romance, adventure, shock-horror, and a few "dead Mom" books for those in emotional limbo.  Check!

So, whom do you want to write for, the kids who read your books, or the editor who plucks your manuscript from the slush pile and makes you a published author?  What I am really asking here is, why choose? Be smart, and give both of them what they crave.  Books that combine rich, well-defined characters, with plots that move along and grip the reader, are the ones that please both kid readers and editors.  Why?  Because books that combine a gripping plot with fascinating characters SELL!

You Need to Understand the Main Characters in This Story 

In order of appearance they are as follows:

You decide to populate your fast paced plot with characters of great depth and fascination. YEA! You are on your way to publication.  Then it hits you.  You have the plot already—can't wait to put it on paper.  However, those characters of great depth and fascination might take longer. . . I am here to help you give birth to characters steeped in human foibles, rich backgrounds, and assorted fascinating propensities.

Sorry, there are no epidurals available for this type of painful literary birth!

Observe, Look Back, and Think!

Back-story Adds Rich Details

Nothing is new. What you have to do is think of new ways to tell an old story, and new ways to make characters jump off the page, wrapped in the genuine reality of what you have seen, experienced and remembered.

Back-story is the stuff you weave into the plot about your POV  (point of view) character's past. It can be good stuff that shows his fine character, or it might be the one terrible thing he did that he is desperate to hide forever. Alternatively, it can be an event or happening that has been forgotten by all of your characters - except one. It can come out as gossip between friends, or something overheard or read.  It can be blurted out in a group conversation.  Back-story is a way to insert hints and clues that paint your main characters the way you want them to be seen.  It gives us more information about your POV than his character is willing to personally share.  It is often about jealousy, or something terrible or shaming. The secret of doing this well, is to blend these snippets in as a natural part of whatever is going on in a particular chapter. Think of your own life, and the family and friends you know.  Try to recall when back-story about someone close to you leaked out; who leaked it, when, and why.

Emotional Snippets Work Wonders

This is information straight from the horse's mouth—your main POV. Inner thought bares the heart and soul of your POV character.  Tension in a great scene mounts. A few terse and revealing thoughts from your POV can bring the scene alive for your reader.  Don't ramble.  Keep the thoughts juicy and succinct. 

Inner Thought Example:

         Sally yawned, staring bleary eyed at the podium. The professor droned on about a bunch of esoteric mumbo-jumbo.  Her head nodded, and her eyes closed.  Dave dug his elbow into her ribs. 

         "Huh!"  Her eyes flew open.  Damn it!  This guy's a sleeping pill!

Cutting some attribution is also a useful ploy.  Replace this with the character's actions or reactions.  It is more interesting, and when done well, offers insight into your character's mood, style or intentions.  Over time and chapters, the addition of "telling" actions and reactions, instead of the ubiquitous said, adds richness and depth to a character.

With Attribution:

 "I don't want to go to the movies tonight, Tom.  I told you that this morning," said Susan.  "You never listen when I tell you something."

With Actions:

"I don't want to go to the movies tonight, Tom.  I told you that this morning."  Susan turned her back and muttered,  "You never listen when I tell you something."

All you have to do is blend your new cast of brilliantly conceived characters into that out-of-the-box plot you thought up.  

Do I hear the sound of editors drooling?


Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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