Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Most Important Thing...

When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

-from Frank
It's difficult to say what is most important. For one thing, different elements appeal to different people. For another, plot, character, theme, language, tone, setting...all of these are like ingredients in a cake. People don't look at a cake and say, "Is flour the most important thing?" They ask if it is fluffy or delicious (unless they're bakers, I suppose). It takes all of the ingredients working in tandem to create the finished product, and if one is missing or neglected, the 'taste' is off, right?

[After all of that metaphor work, I have a confession to make -- I don't like cake. I'm a pie guy].

That said, if you put a gun to my head, I would choose character. I think without character, you have nothing. Well, not nothing. You've got something, but it is isn't worth nearly as much, and it probably falls flat.

[That doesn't mean something can't be successful without it. I mean, I thought the lead professor from the plot-heavy novel The Da Vinci Code was about as cardboard as they come, but people bought the hell out of that book.]

In my own work, I almost always start with the character. Who is he? What does she do? What happens to him? How does she handle it? Everything else usually seems to evolve from there. The answer to these questions gives me the story which leads to the plot, and somewhere along the line, I discover the theme (or more aptly put, it discovers me).

Characters are what people remember. Right now, I'm not necessarily thinking of what happened to Ellie Stone in Los Angeles in Jim's novel, Cast the First Stone. I'm remembering Ellie herself, at least at first. Who she is, and why I like her. Ellie is why I'll go back and read the rest of the books. I think this is true with many readers. Everything matters, but character matters most. I mean this in an artistic sense, but I think it is often true in a commercial sense as well.

Available for Pre-Order!
In the rare instance when the character doesn't come first for me, it can be a struggle. I had what I believe was a great idea for a story when I first conceived of my newest novel, In The Cut  (Down and Out Books, available Jan 27! Get it for 40% off while on pre-order!).

I labored over the intracacies of the plot in order to make every turn and twist work within the context of the story and all its characters, but I was always missing one thing -- I didn't know who Boone, the main character, truly was. He performed admirably in service to the plot, and I finished a couple of drafts with him playing that role. As I prepared to send the book to the publisher, though, I found myself strangely hesitant.

I loved this idea when I had it. I loved the idea as I crafted what I knew was a good story. There were at least two twists most people wouldn't see coming, and I knew I'd been fair with those twists, too. So why didn't I feel satisfied?

It was my wife Kristi that pointed out the problem to me in more specific detail. With incisive criticism, she pointed to the flaws in Boone's motivation, his thought process, and perhaps most importantly, in my belief of who he was. She was pretty sure I had pegged him wrong.

Uh-oh. She was right. I didn't have a handle on the most important thing - character. And the main character, at that. The supporting class felt solid, but not Boone.

So I did a deep dive. Why did I feel this way about him? Who was Boone? How did he feel about everything and everyone inside that novel? Why did he feel that way? Why did he make the choices he made?

All of these are questions that get answered up front most of the time, at least for me. So it was an odd place to be, not having concrete answers for a protagonist while sitting on a complete novel, story-wise.

I thought about it a lot (no sauna at the gym, Abir, but thanks to Kristi's insistence, we've got a hot tub at the house). I asked Kristi what she thought, since she was instrumental in pointing out that I had a problem. She had some great insight into what should be foremost on Boone's mind, and why. I also consulted one of my writer friends, Colin Conway, and got an additional perspective. Then, between conversations with both of them and some time with a pen, a yellow note pad, and my own mind, I found Boone. Who he was slowly became revealed to me.

My attitude about In the Cut changed immediately, once I knew who Boone was. The revisions to accomodate his true self were fun, easy, and fast...because they felt right. Who he was didn't change the plot, it only changed how he responded to things -- what he thought, felt, and how he did things. In a couple places, it changed what he did, but the impact on the plot itself was fairly minimal. The change to how Boone was portrayed was considerable.

When I sent the book to the publisher, I did so with some measure of pride and confidence.

I think if you'd asked me the question a year ago or ten years ago, my answer would still have been that character is the most important thing. But writing In the Cut reaffirmed my belief.

For me, character is the most important element, and always will be.


Robin Burcell said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. Character is king (or queen as the case may be). If I can't identify or empathize with a character, I'm likely to put down that book before I dig deep enough to decide if it's any good. Same holds true for movies. First few minutes, there better be someone or something to root for or I'm switching the channel (or, if in a movie theater, taking a nap the moment I finish my popcorn).

My fave line in this post might just be: [After all of that metaphor work, I have a confession to make -- I don't like cake. I'm a pie guy]. :-)

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Frank.

Susan C Shea said...

Really good analysis, Frank. This would be helpful to beginning writers to hear. And the metaphor of a cake works!

Frank Zafiro said...

@Robin and @Susan -- glad you liked the pie line! And thanks, @Dietrich!