Slave to the Narrative

Ever hear about plots being on rails? Or maybe characters being a “slave to the narrative”? Those are both descriptive ways of explaining that the plot is the driving force of the book, overshadowing everything else. Things happen because the plot demands it, not necessarily because it feels natural to do so.

I’ve always known of the concept, but it never hit me as hard as it did now. I’d gotten some good advice from an agent about my manuscript Altered Egos and wanted to implement it into the most recent draft. In the book, my protagonist is a supervillain who’s freed from prison to stop a serial killer. Now there are plenty of things vying for his attention and trying to keep him under someone’s thumb, but I realized that I too fell prey to making him a slave to the plot.

I thought I’d covered my bases pretty well by having him always be scheming for ways out, but then I went back and reread scenes of him running head first into danger. I had to stop and ask myself why. Well, I knew why, because I needed him to blow up that mech or to save that guy for whatever reason. But would my protagonist really do that?

The short answer was yes. He needed to accomplish these tasks to further his own plans. The longer answer was yes, but he’d have reservations. I needed to do a better job of explaining that in the prose. I was missing the entire emotional piece of how he felt about the matter. I just had him moving about like a chess piece. Yeah, he’s an intellectual guy and I had him examining many of these situations from an intellectual angle but I don’t care who you are, if bullets are flying over your head and things are exploding left and right, you’re going to be on the verge of peeing your pants. But none of that was in there.

It made those scenes feel hollow. Here I had a protagonist with a strong character voice, but we never really got into his head. It wasn’t some parlor trick I was going for, it was just weak writing.

I’ve never been one of those authors who say their characters are dictating the story as they go along. I need an outline and I need to move my pieces around from Point A to Point B, but there are times I can do a better job of explaining how my characters feel about those elements. More often than not, readers are enticed by the plot, but they stay for the characters. It’s the emotional connection a reader forms with a protagonist that has a lasting effect, but they can’t form that emotional connection if the character doesn’t actually emote.

Glad I got that advice and caught it when I did.

Just a reminder that my book Fairfax Cleaners is for sale on all major e-retailers. And you can of course get a print on demand version from Amazon.

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Just Like the Dentist

Short and sweet today. I need to get some stuff finished so I can run home and mow the grass before the rain comes.

After being off writing for about a week, I’ve had to get back into the saddle before I can ramp up the word count. My little inspiration critters were skittish early on, but they’re coming back. Not yesterday though. Oh man. Yesterday, I had to fight for every single sentence. I know you can’t always pick the time to write. You don’t have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike, but yesterday was just torture. I made myself get at least 600 words down so I felt like I’d accomplished something, but I had to throw in the towel.

I think it was a problem of direction. I wasn’t exactly sure where I wanted to go next and I hadn’t done the proper prewriting for it, so I just ended up floundering. Solved that today though, so I’m back on track and the world is good. Although, I ran into another interesting issue.

I have a secondary character (one who I hope will one day spawn his own spinoff series) who’s a magic-usin’ Scotsman. I used to live in Aberdeen when I studied ethnology and folklore for my master’s degree, so I like to think that I know a thing or two about the Scots. I’ve always wanted to write a Scottish character and I do a pretty mean accent, but for whatever reason, this guy is coming off as Irish.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t confuse the two cultures. Not one bit. I absolutely know the difference. I like them both, but I had a target in my mind that this guy was Scottish. His backstory confirms it. But when I hear his voice in my head, it’s totally Irish. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing on my part and that’s how I’ve actually always envisioned him, but this is the first time where I can absolutely say that my character has a mind of his own. When authors talk about characters doing what they want, I usually smile and nod and say “Sure.” But I get it now.

Try as I may, I might just give in. What the hell? I can rework the backstory to make him Irish, sure. Plenty to draw on. Maybe this just wasn’t the time and place for my Scotsman protagonist.

Has something like this happened to any of you out there? Characters going differently than how you thought they’d be?