Unlike my previous post on writing fiction well, this topic is neither simple nor easy to explain. Novels are, as much as any form of art, a multifaceted experience. You could absolutely ace the characterization only to have a story ruined by the plot. Or you could craft a spectacular plot, but lose reader interest because you failed to make the world interesting. I believe the best authors realize that everything that has an impact on the story is sort of a character in-and-of itself, and as such deserves to be fleshed out just as much as the main character (and perhaps even more so).
That being said, this post needs to be organized somehow. With the complete beginner in mind, I’ve organized this as a list of the main facets you will want to keep in mind when starting a novel.
- Main character: This is one of the most essential elements of a story, and unfortunately it can also be a difficult concept to grasp at first. While most of us were taught that the main character is the narrator, in reality the main character is whoever ends up having the greatest impact on a novel. If the novel is a tragedy and the villain wins, then the main character is the primary antagonist. But if the ‘good guys’ win—as is usually the case—the main character is the primary protagonist. The reason it’s important to recognize the main character is because they will influence everything else in your story. Chapters and plots involving him/her become the main plot (and should be covered in more detail), while those that don’t will be story/side plots.
- Protagonist: When you hear protagonist, I want you to picture Superman with that big S on his chest. Then I want you to take that picture and crumple it into a little ball. There are no superheroes here. Your protagonist should have sympathetic motivations and foibles, especially if they’re the main character. To a certain extent, they should also reflect your audience.
The Twilight series is a great example of this: in order to sell books to the teen audience, Stephenie Meyer gave them a character modelled after the average ‘teen’ girl in every way… but who, for some unknown reason, was extraordinarily attractive to the main character (thus fulfilling a fantasy of ‘undiscovered value’).
- Narrator: This character serves as the reader’s eyes and ears into the world of the novel. While they can be the main character, this often results in a milquetoast main character. Why? Because a strong-willed narrator intrudes upon the story and colors it in a way that can turn readers off. The best example is a main character who’s casually racist; most readers don’t want to spend a whole novel in the head of someone who’s using the n word and dismissing people of a different color. Done well, this can make for some amazing novels. But when you’re starting out you’re better off picking a narrator who will either be a milquetoast main character, or separating the narrator and main character roles.
- Supporting characters: As a YA author I picture mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. The supporting characters are those who make the world feel real without (typically) influencing the main plot. They don’t need to have their foibles explored in the same way as protagonists or antagonists, but they can still have something unique about them. That doesn’t mean that every supporting character has to be unique to the point of ridiculousness, especially if they’re utterly unimportant to the story and plot.
For example, I have an uncle I’ll call Uncle Andy. He comes to all of our family get-togethers and sits near the end of the table, eating whatever food is available. He never gets loud, but if you sit by him he’ll make polite conversation that leaves little to no impression. In essence, he’s the human form of a palate cleanser. Important characters should not be an Uncle Andy. However, for some supporting characters it’s perfectly fine to be an Uncle Andy.
- Antagonist: Picture the opposite of Superman. An evil guy with a big A on his chest and a snarl on his face. Now—again—crumple it up and throw it away. The best antagonists are complicated. The best antagonists are confusing, in a way that the protagonist can’t make sense of until the very end. In fact, some of the best antagonists aren’t people at all. Yes, you heard me right: antagonists don’t always have to take human form. They could be robots, zombies, or time itself. The only qualifications for a good antagonist are that they pose a credible threat to the protagonist and that they can be defeated. In other words, the protagonist and antagonist should seem equally matched until the end, when the chips fall and the final winner is revealed.
- World: A novel’s world includes a lot more than you’d think. Basically, I picture it as an answer to the ‘what,’ ‘where,’ and ‘how’ questions: What do the people eat? Where is their home? What does their room look like? How many people do they go to school with? A well-made world will allow you to answer all of these questions and more. For example, for my latest book (Ashes to Ashes) I created an entire roster of high school students with descriptions, to the point where you could ask about one of the supporting characters—say, Shane (mentioned once in the last chapter)—and I could tell you all about them. He has brown hair and green eyes, he’s African American, he’s considered highly attractive by his classmates, he’s an extrovert/thinker personality type, he’s in Theater but no sports (and he wouldn’t be very good at them if he tried), he has no social skills, he’s about average popularity-wise, and therefore the ‘clique’ he hangs out with are the Theater kids.
I can imagine the next question I will be asked is whether I can keep all of that in mind when/if Shane ever plays a bigger role in the story, and the honest answer is no. But it helps me paint a mental picture of how he would behave. Also, you would be surprised how minor details of the world influence a story. Like when I’m trying to come up with a reason for two characters to fight. Do you think it’s more effective to invent something off the top of my head, or for me to be able to say ‘well, they’re both on the football team and this one character is really bad at football, so the good football player is pissed off at him for making the team lose’? In the end, world-building is paramount no matter what genre you’re writing.
- Plot: You might have noticed that I make a distinction between plot and story, both here and in my own writing. I view plot as the events which move the main story forward; it’s the engine propelling you toward the end. My advice for plot is simple: get the engine started quickly, and keep it moving at a reasonable pace. In the middle of the book readers will give you more leeway for story than at the beginning, so the first few chapters should be mostly plot. Your initial goal is to show readers that they’re in for an adventure.
However, from there you can back off a little bit. The goal is to surprise the reader well and surprise them often, but this can be accomplished through story as well as plot. In essence, think of the plot like a water slide: you should build an initial exciting drop, and then in between you can slow down occasionally to build anticipation for what’s about to come. Or you could make it steep and fast the whole way through.
- Story: If plot is the engine moving a book along, story is everything that keeps it in one place. It’s the main character’s personal growth, the sidekick’s need for attention (ugh… please don’t write a novel like this), the time taken to explore those minor world details that you spent so long crafting. Story, when used well, brings the novel to life. It elevates it above a simple vehicle for the plot.
I abhor the sexist undertones of the Game of Thrones series, but they are a perfect example of how story can be even more interesting than plot. Martin gave readers four books worth of story, with no plot other than a vague ‘the princess has dragons over here’ and ‘there are zombies coming at some point.’ Like him or hate him, he’s become an international bestseller based primarily off of the series’ story. But what did the very first book start with? The plot. The watchmen getting killed by zombies and one of them running away, setting the rest of the pieces in motion.
- History: While plot and story are everything that happens to characters during the novel, their history is what came before. It’s ancillary to world-building in many ways, and could easily be considered a part of the larger world-building task. Writing a good history is about hitting the main points of why your characters are where they are, but it can also be about setting up the rules a character is forced to live with (think of the car crash in the movie Footloose, which inspired the town to pass that silly ‘no dancing’ rule). Tolkien’s writings are the shining example of fleshed-out history resulting in some great novels; I haven’t read them myself, but I’ve been told there are tomes upon tomes of Middle Earth lore and background, all serving to explain how Sauron and Gandalf and the dwarves and ringwraiths got to where they are.
I believe this is my longest post ever, so thanks for bearing with me. I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what goes into a fiction novel, but hopefully this will be enough to serve as a guideline for the beginning author. If you’d like more, please check out my other posts on the subject (I write quite a bit on the subject, as you might have guessed).
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