From Jane Friedman’s blog: Starting Your Novel With Character: 3 Strengths and 3 Challenges, by Susan DeFreitas
Okay, I feel like I start with the characters — well, with the characters and the scene and situation — certainly not with the plot, anyway. So I’ll bite. Tell me all about the pluses and minuses of starting with the character.
In my work as a book coach, I’ve found that writers of fiction generally fall into three camps: those who start with character, those who start with plot or story concept, and those who start with theme...
Oh, the theme! I hadn’t thought of that as an option. That’s an interesting idea — starting with the theme. I feel like most of the time I don’t know what the theme is until a reviewer says, “Neumeier’s strong theme of whatever,” and then I’m like, Oh, right, that was definitely the theme.
I’m exaggerating, but not that much. I’d be interested in DeFreitas’ ideas about how it works to start with the theme, but for now, back to starting with the character(s):
Strength: Characters make us care. A twisty plot, compelling themes, and fascinating setting are all great assets for a novel, but character is what makes us really care about the story.…
I agree completely! At least for me. I’m a character reader most of the time. If I don’t immediately engage emotionally with the protagonist, I’m probably going to DNF the book. The engagement has to be very nearly immediate these days, too, as I will seldom read more than ten pages or so before deciding not to finish a book. I realize this is not entirely fair and I’m probably missing some books I would have liked a lot if I’d only stuck with them for a few chapters. But. The TBR pile, so enormous; time, so limited … have I mentioned that I’m trying to whittle down my paper TBR pile this summer? I’ve DNFed and discarded, hmm, must be about a dozen books this month. I don’t believe I’ve finished any.
Writers who start with character don’t struggle to create characters who seem alive on the page, whose struggles touch upon universal themes, and who exhibit the sort of complexity that makes us as readers really feel what it is to be human. …
Those of us who said, with regard to a previous post, “I don’t know how I create characters, I just do it,” are probably this kind of writer.
Strength: There’s a solid market for character-driven fiction. The vast majority of novels that fall into the genres known as contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction are character-driven… Writers who start with character generally don’t struggle to determine if there’s a market for the sort of thing they do, because that market is broad and well defined.
Well, that’s nice, but better still, a whole lot of fantasy and some SF is also character driven. Good thing too, as I read very little in any of the genres mentioned above.
Seeing a statement like this makes me feel at once that the author of this post thinks of SFF as inherently plot driven. I may not be quite fair in assuming that. But the idea that character-driven fiction is well defined strongly suggests that assumption. The category of “character-driven fiction” is not either “well defined.” Lots of SFF novels are character driven while some are not. Some murder mysteries are character driven while lots are not. Lots of romances are character driven. Lots of historicals too.
However, I grant, there is still a solid market for character-driven SFF, because a whole bunch of readers seek out this kind of SFF and do not want plot-driven SFF. This is one of the features that makes fantasy more popular than science fiction, probably, but that is probably a topic for a different post.
Okay, third strength:
Strength: There’s no question whose story it is. Other types of writers may spend some time in the planning stages of a novel wrestling with the question of who their protagonist should be. But for writers who start with character, this generally isn’t an issue (unless there are so many compelling characters in their head that it’s just hard to choose among them).
Oh, I at once thought of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy. My biggest problem with that trilogy was that all the characters could have been THE central protagonist for a novel. It was almost painful to switch from one to another. I could not possibly pick out the pov protagonist I liked the best from this wide field.
Now for the problems inherent with starting with the character(s):
Challenge: Too many POVs. … generally speaking, these other POVs are compelling and well written. But that doesn’t mean that including them serves the story; sometimes these other POVs are no more than game trails that lead the story off on tangents without contributing anything in particular to the main story line, and, as such, should be avoided.
I think that’s funny because it instantly points to the problem I had with Bear’s trilogy. Except in her case all those POVs supported her story, because she’s a fine writer and wouldn’t just accidentally scatter her attention through side tangents. But this way of defining a challenge for a character-centered author is making me think of … hmm, I think it was Marie Brennan who wrote a long review of The Wheel of Time and counted up the pov characters. There were something like 140 pov characters in that series — way, way too may inserted for no special reason. (Most of that review has disappeared into the aether, as far as I know, but part of it is here.)
I personally do try to keep down the number of pov characters. But they do tend to multiply. I think of it as something of a triumph when I write a whole novel with exactly one pov character. That’s only happened in books I wrote later, so I guess it was a challenge for me, since I never used to do it. Still, other than the Black Dog series, I’m pretty sure I never got above four important main pov characters. Or so.
Challenge: Lack of arc. Sometimes writers have so much love and sympathy for their protagonists that they have a hard time imagining a real flaw for that character, or some real issue in the way that person sees the world.
Is this a somewhat more polite way of declaring that character-centered authors may be more prone to creating Mary Sue characters?
Actually, I sort of think this is true. I also think the easiest way around it is to start with a young protagonist and have the character grow up. But you can also do it by just not having the protagonist be right about everything and acknowledging that.
One of the protagonists I’m most personally fond of is Oressa, and one reason I particularly like her is that the relationship between Oressa and Gulien is so simple, but the relationship each of them has with their father is so complex and different. In other words, including the protagonist in a complicated web of relationships is perhaps one way in which to give the protagonist some pressure to change.
Challenge: Slow plot. Yes, readers in general find deep character work compelling. But that doesn’t mean a novel can just rely on character to keep the reader turning the pages. For that to happen, there needs to be a causally linked series of events, with emotional stakes, that escalates over the course of a story to a distinct breaking point—in other words, a real plot.
A good observation, with the limitation that sometimes — as I think many of us agree — a low-stakes novel about characters and relationships is just the ticket. I’m sure we all just thought of The Hands of the Emperor here, among others. Lowell’s The Wizard’s Butler. And so forth and so on. Many of us preferred this kind of book last year, I know. I sure did.
Okay! So, a post that makes some good points. By all means click through and read the whole thing if you’re interested. If you’re a character-first author, how much does all this resonate for you? I think I agree with a lot of it.