In the first part of this blog I looked at the smoothness of the narrative and how peaks and lulls in the emotional intensity of the story seem to engage the reader. But there are clearly many aspects of the narrative that can allow the author to make the most of it. Here I want to turn attention to a couple of these aspects. Namely the plot and the characters. As Stephen King puts it, the way a character reacts to a situation is often key to the whole of his novel. See here.
The more writing I’ve done, the more evident it has seemed that novels can be broadly divided into two categories – those in which a gripping narrative is more essential and those in which investment in the characters is key. Writers clearly need to be able to be proficient at both elements, but I believe one needs to excel, or take priority if you will, if a story is to grip the reader heart and soul. The subject matter seems to me, something that is weaved in to this concern. But if we look at say Harry Potter, readers love being in that magical world for the duration of the book. They love the twists and turns of the plot. But they probably are most of all interested in the journey JK Rowling takes them on. It seems to me that her novels just about prioritise character over plot. Hence all the people who dress up as Harry Potter characters for the film openings and book signings. But it’s debatable!
I’ll look first of all at character. At York University I taught a course on ‘Building The Layers of A Character’ and it was, without doubt, the hardest course I’ve taught. After all, how can you formalise this process? Why do we care about one character and not another? Do they need to be likeable? I would argue that no, they don’t. Hannibal Lecter makes a great protagonist even though he is abhorrent. Unless you have some sympathy for cannibals! But often characters seem to have a fatal flaw, a unique gift, find themselves in a unique position (as Stephen King often ensures) or even have a way of expressing themselves that is unique. But to make the most of our narrative it is not enough to have a character people want to invest in. It is not even enough to tell an interesting story about that person. As authors, we can only make the most of the narrative if we choose the best part of that character’s story to tell. You’ll see that authors often use a prologue, or weave the background of the protagonist in to opening scenes (often details mentioned by other characters regarding their troubled background or past) but this won’t be dwelled on too long. The important thing to do is to make sure the most interesting part of their trajectory – the part in which they probably develop as people (on a physical, moral and educational level) is what is covered by the lion’s share of the story. To me, as a writer, this is where most of the art of writing is. So often have I found myself at pains to ensure the reader will care enough about my character to follow their narrative. To want to see how it works out for them. To try and achieve this, for example, I’ve made sure it is mentioned that the character worked in an old people’s home. That they had a spell in an institution. Anything to ensure that the delicate balance is tipped in the readers mind and they think ‘yes, I’m interested this character.’
So what about the second category of novels? Where the narrative succeeds because of a gripping plot? As a writer this has always been the part that has required the most work for me. I seem to lean towards interesting characters, whose inner worlds I want to explore, and draft after draft is dedicated to making sure the narrative has enough components in it to keep the reader going at a given moment. The rule I try to bear in mind is to remember that at any point the reader must have a question in their mind. What was the explosion in the background just now? What does she mean by ‘I can never see you again.’ Why is x character not angry, given what he’s just been through? This is the school of creative writing which, admittedly, is rather manipulative of the reader. Donna Tartt excels at this style of novel. I think that even if you are leaving red herrings for the reader, hinting at something that has or could happen in the plot which doesn’t in the end turn out to be the case, as long as you can keep the reader turning pages you’re succeeding. Of course, the narrative is likely to have one over arching question which is the reason the story has been invested in in the first place. Will Harry Potter get to defeat Voldemort? Will James Bond foil the plot to blow up the world? But within that narrative enough intriguing questions need to be there so that at any point the reader just has to keep going. Some novelist use chapters as mini stories within the novel in which an encapsulated adventure might occur. Others, like EL James in Fifty Shades (which I discussed in part one) use a smooth rise and fall in the intensity of the narrative to give a story that rhythm.
The reason I think that the gripping narrative is difficult is because a pact has been entered, between the reader and the writer. Leave too many red herrings- occurrences hinted at which turn out to be nothing, but which kept the reader going- and the reader will get annoyed. Ideally, in a novel, all the little questions should be answered by the end. Unless, perhaps, you deliberately want to keep a question unanswered so the reader questions themselves once the story is finished? Doing this can be a way of making sure the story lives on in the readers mind.
I will be talking further about how characters are constructed during a Google Hangout I’m running on Building The Layers of a Character on Monday 30 January at 11am.
In this class some tips will be offered on how, as writers, we can build the layers of characters, to create rich and 3-dimensional personalities on the page to truly grip the reader. To enhance this skill tips will be offered, along with exercises that the students can do in their own time. There will also be time for students to share any struggles they are having with this issue with the tutor, and to have their questions answered. If you’d like to take part or submit questions in advance please email firstname.lastname@example.org