Monday, October 21, 2013

What's Important in a Story

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I was going through my blog reader recently and came across an interesting post from writer Jeff Cohen: “Stuff Not to Do” on the Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room blog.  The whole article was good, but the part that particularly caught my eye was this:
Don't decide on the crime and then create a character to fit it. Character comes first. The crime is the bait; it's what Alfred Hitchcock called "the MacGuffin," something the people in your book are desperate about but the reader should find secondary. Your characters are first. Write characters the reader cares about one way or another, and you're halfway home. Killing someone with a guillotine in the middle of Indiana isn't the key to your book.”
I thought Jeff nailed it.
I don’t know how long it took me to figure this out, but it was a while.  I thought, since I was being paid to write mysteries, that my primary focus was that mystery…for you, it might be the magic in your fantasy or the science in your science fiction.  It was very important to me to get my clues, red herrings, motives, murders, and solution perfectly written.  And I think I did a good job with that.  But one day, one of my editors told me, “Elizabeth, your mystery is very sound.  But what your readers particularly care about is the characters.  What’s going on with them?  I’d like to see more of what they’re up to in between the time while they’re working on the case.”
When I was starting out my series,  I thought that the interpersonal relationships of my characters, their problems, what was going on in their non-mystery-solving lives was interesting to me, but I wasn’t sure if my editors were going to perceive it as filler that needed to be edited out.  After all, wasn’t I deviating from the plot—the mystery?  Then I realized that the in-between stuff was the way I was connecting to my readers—the characters were pulling them into my story.  Readers had purchased my book in order to read about my characters…who just happened to be solving a murder mystery while my readers caught up with their lives.  In some ways, the subplots that developed my characters and hooked readers were just as important as the A Plot—the mystery itself.
I can write a 45,000 word book that’s solely the mystery.  That’s as long as it takes to introduce suspects, outline the crime, and focus on an investigation and a puzzle and a solution.  But that’s only the puzzle—straight mystery.  Adding in the subplots, the personal interaction between characters, their conflicts, the way the mystery affects them…this adds in about 30,000 more words.  It’s not fluff, either—it’s character development.  It’s all about hooking the readers with the character personalities.
Why would readers read my mystery, otherwise?  They wouldn’t care about the victim (who is frequently a nasty personality anyway), they wouldn’t have enough information to identify with or pull for the sleuth, and the suspects…well, they’re all suspected of murder.  To hook readers, you have to make them care about all of the characters—even the victim.  The reader has to care enough to want this case to be solved and to solve it alongside the protagonist.  To help out.
This is true with any genre.  As Jeff Cohen put it, the genre functions as the MacGuffin. It’s not all about the romance or paranormal aspects of a story’s creatures, the science fiction or the fantasy.  Those function as just the premise that lures readers of that genre to our books.  Most popular books are popular because of the characters populating them.
As a reader and writer, how important are the characters to you?  How do you enrich the story by revealing more about them while still keeping up your story’s pace and keeping to your genre restrictions?

****Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi from the Bookshelf Muse (now at Writers Helping Writers) are holding a special event to celebrate the release of two more books in their  Descriptive Thesaurus Collection: The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Flaws.  They're offering a free opportunity for help with pitches/hooks/queries/more. See for info or to sign up (I'm one of the ones helping with the event). Thanks! ***