Put Some Meat On Their Bones
Updated: Feb 7
I once wrote a piece for Publisher's Weekly about how even people who are terminally disorganized can craft novels. I offered a five-step alternative to the (impossible) task of manufacturing a pre-writing blueprint. Of these:
one-sentence plot description
writing what you know
asking what if
and creating three-dimensional characters
it is the final that is most crucial.
In order for your narrative to take off, your cast needs to be sketched out (with well-rounded backstories that include things like the meaning of hidden tattoos, food allergies, wardrobe choices, cat or dog preference, conversational crutches, and interior monologues) so that when they're presented with What If, their behavior in response makes sense.
Because that's what's interesting. On the page and um, in real life.
Who is everyone?
Little details are huge and can and should be utilized throughout the story. The pain from an old war injury or an unnatural fear of cats can and should be revisited like ear worms throughout a character-driven novel. (With, you know, not going overboard.) One person's compulsively clean house may just be reflective of a family phenomenon, whereas someone else's could represent a desperate attempt to keep things under control. Which is it?
Knowing when to reveal what is also part of a successful formula. Just like at cocktail parties you don't tell a new acquaintance your whole life story while awaiting a turn at the crudite platter (he might drop and army-crawl away from the hors d'oeuvres table); instead you share snippets of information, judiciously.
Features to explore include default positions. (Does a particular character display an outlook of glass half-full or that of chronic vigilance for lip-gouging rim chips?) And where does that world-view come from -- a congenital disposition or a hard-earned philosophy? Other things to consider about your cast: Their birth order-- peace-keeping middle child? bossy (wise) eldest? Station playing in the car -- right-wing (cuckoo conspiracy) talk radio or classical music? How do your peeps handle adversity? By taking to their beds? Or tackling obstacles with grace and determination? How about performing mundane tasks like replacing the toilet paper? Does the protagonist trudge bitterly to the linen closet
or does she cheerfully snag a new roll, folding the top square into a mysterious triangle like at hotels?
Sometimes it is the utterly unexpected response that moves a novel forward. Does a previously submissive character shock everyone by grabbing an unexpected opportunity? For instance, does an obedient teen in a fundamentalist community view her ancient husband's death as merely a weigh station between assigned marriages or does she seize the opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge?
Either way, the groundwork needs to be laid by padding her identity so the action tracks.
In scary stories it's about the air space painted around the villain that's critical. (Not a multi-chapter confession.) The final reveal should be shocking while also credible. (You really don't want your readers going, huh?)
If the kindly pediatrician is the serial killer, let his nurse rave about how the gentle man has long insisted on parent-free exam rooms to foster doctor-patient relationships. Go into detail about the (terrifying) clown wall paper in the waiting room and raise suspicions about his weekly stint volunteering at the animal shelter. But just enough.
If you do a good job creating the characters they will, in turn, help carry you over the finish line.