Call it a light bulb moment. The moment when I put together two subsets of character and plot, to realize why most novels fail.
First off, and to simplify, novels fall short when they fail to engage, fail to keep the reader’s interest or perhaps telegraph by the cover copy or the glaring lack of word of mouth recommendations–that they are going to fail to engage. Novels fail to engage because they are boring. (Poorly written might be okay, but never boring.)
How long will it be before all of us ever-so-talented writers finally give up trying to hoist the standard of “good writing” and settle in to write a damn good story? If you can do both, then your name is probably Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of Poets) or Carol Birch (Jamrach’s Menagerie.) But, see, you don’t need to be Walter or Birch. All you need to do is tell a remarkable story. Competently.
Given this, why do so many novels fail? (I’m including published novels, here. Did you think that when you publish, you are a success? Not yet. For that you have to sell copies. And I’m as upset about that fact as you are, believe me.)
The secret of plotting
Actually, there is no secret. True plot fundamentals are being preached by every writing teacher in the country except those in MFA programs.
What is fundamental to plot? Conflict.
The reader wants to see the major character (MC) in trouble. A lot of trouble. It’s not enough to have the MC desire something and then not have it (although this must occur.) By conflict is meant:
failure and misfortune
physical disaster or threat of, such as violence and illness
self-defeating feelings such as guilt, fear and envy
reversals of fortune
. . . and preferably all at once
And yet, here we are, writing stories with one central conflict. One central conflict is good. It’s called a story problem. However, issues arise when we have just one, or three or five sources of conflict. In other words, we don’t have enough conflict.
We don’t bring it into scenes, dialogue, long sequences or cameo moments. We forget the opposition when casting, ruminating, and describing the scenery. All these are opportunities for tension and conflict.
And yet, we are squandering these opportunities.
Why writers are afraid of conflict
I don’t know the answer. We’ve been told and told. Teachers tell us. Readers tell us. Borrr-ing. I put it down after 50 pages. Nothing happens. But I’m a blogger, so I’m going to guess why we step back from conflict.
Conflict is hard to do convincingly. To keep the tension high we have to plot fairly carefully. If we’re just throwing random stones at the MC, the astute reader will notice. Therefore we must plan for it all to be believable, and planning is hard and feels unproductive when we need to “get pages.”
Too much conflict means we are writing a commercial novel. Really? Read the two literary novels mentioned in paragraph three. One nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
Because you hated The DaVinci Code. I don’t understand why people I know hate that story so much. It was very far to one side of the commercial-literary spectrum, it is true. Right about where the Harry Potter novels live? Anyway, I suspect it is snobbishness and a little bit of envy. Don’t want to be accused of writing a clearly commercial novel? Then ease up on the accelerator. Just don’t roll to a stop.
Conflict takes a lot of time to set up and I need time for character. But character is your MC in action, acting and reacting to obstacles. Characters are what they do, not what the narrator tells us they are. You paint your character in the middle of doing. I know, I know, you want to tell the reader how the character is. But we really ought to get over this.
It’s not that readers are into suffering. But stories are about something, and longer stories (novels) must have a lot of something in them. And that means opposing agendas, circumstantial obstacles, and self-generated failure–prior to the MC winning.
What about character?
I said earlier that we establish character in action, but I know it’s not that simple. Characterization is one of the most talked about aspects of the novel and the one least amenable to teaching.
Have you ever noticed how really good characters just march onto your pages out of nowhere? And how they are almost always supporting characters? This is because we are not afraid to make supporting characters strange. They can be remarkable by virtue of their odd personalities, belief systems and habits of speech.
They are eccentric.
The different protagonist
But I would suggest to you that the odder your protagonist, the deeper he or she will take you into character. The eccentric MC will logically be rejected by other characters in the story, thus worsening the MC’s position. This is great for both plot and character. Plot, because of more conflict, character because your MC is reacting to this conflict.
The eccentric character will constantly worsen his position. Thus he is to some degree self-destructive. He will worsen his position at the very moment when he might have bettered it. Great fodder for conflict. The eccentric character will need to justify himself. This is delicious territory for an author, because of the dramatic irony that the reader will be aware of how the eccentricities are working against him. And the character himself will tend not to be aware of this. (As heavily invested as he is in his self-perceived normalcy.)
I am not talking about a dark protagonist. You might want to have one, but that’s a separate issue. A dark protagonist is morally ambivalent. An eccentric protagonist can be enormously likable, and is usually more fun to be in a scene with than your garden-variety likable hero.
The only author who routinely gets by with the everyman hero is Stephen King. I have given up trying to figure out how he does it. All that I’m sure of is that the rest of us are not doing it so well. (And I have to admit the moment I liked Jake best in King’s latest, 11/22/63, was when he rolled down the window and gave that small town the finger.)
We’ve heard before not to write MCs in our own image and not to write them too nice. Unfortunately, we seem genetically inclined to keep doing it. One way out of this conundrum is to give our MC some remarkable eccentricities. You don’t need to give them goofy Dickensian names, facial tics, or beliefs that aliens built the pyramids. But make them different. Gregory House different, if you want to go that far. By so doing you will create both conflict and, quite possibly, character.
Thus the light bulb. I guess after all my insight is a version of the character flaw. It’s just that I think the character flaw is so often misunderstood and and poorly used by aspiring writers. It feels tacked on, not integrated.
Let’s amp it up. A plot with some cruelty. A character who does not fit in. Mix them together. They were made for each other.