A while ago, I wrote about creating characters people can relate to. Good guys aren’t all good, and bad guys aren’t all bad. I don’t know about other writers, but those who know me well will recognize that my protagonist, Lou Skalney, loves coffee as much as I do. There’s a little of me in him. He doesn’t like oatmeal either.

Plot and Characters

If I had no plot idea, I would have no need for characters because they’d have no purpose or anything to do. Characters need to tilt at windmills, to live in the throes of a conflict of some sort. My story needs a plot to house them and their troubled lives.

Perhaps the conflict is man against man (or God). There are good guys and bad guys, and tension builds until someone wins. It could be a story about a love triangle. Who will win the fair maiden’s heart? (Are there still fair maidens?). It could be a war story, police vs. crooks, political intrigue, you name it.

Then there’s man against nature. Fighting the ravages of climate change, saving people caught in an avalanche, fighting a forest fire, sea-faring sagas, fighting monsters or whales, all to keep you reading past your bedtime.

Finally, there’s man against self. The protagonist must fight inner demons, overcome ingrained negative attitudes or ideas to become the person he/she wants to be. How does he face uncomfortable truths about himself? Can he overcome his worst instincts?

Some plots combine different types of conflicts. I would say Lou Skalney in The Divine Meddler begins in conflict with God, and later finds himself in conflict with the monks who keep him prisoner. That’s man against man. Eventually, however, he must face what he had done and what that says about him. What is he going to do? That’s the man against himself type of conflict.

So, we need a story in which characters must overcome something. Without relatable characters, readers wouldn’t care if they overcame anything. Relatable characters with no challenges would be a snore and a non-story is a bore.

Seafood Gumbo

When Gene and I vacationed in New Orleans, I fell in love with seafood gumbo, as only New Orleans natives can make it. However, I didn’t want to know what was in it, because I assumed it contained some ingredients I would never eat.

A delightful novel is like sea food gumbo. The plot (seafood) is where the writer starts and adds ingredients (characters). “The book is about a man who must find the hidden amulet to save his Queen.” There’s character, conflict, and goal—seafood, vegetables, and broth.

Ah, but where’s the spice? That delightful flavor that keeps you slurping to the end? Once the ingredients simmer away, the cook will taste and think, “it needs some…” Then the cooks tastes again and decides if it needs anything else.

Once I know the general story idea, and create my characters, I throw them together and taste as I go along. Some people call that writing by the seat of your pants. I may decide much later that I want something to happen in Chapter 12, so I go back and plant the seed for it in Chapter 4. That may call for another character, or an established character to react in a certain way to a new situation.

I doubt any writer ends up with the same story he/she devised at first. Characters come alive and may or may not go along with the writer’s plan. I’ve learned to listen to my characters. As they move about in the world I’ve created, they must encounter roadblocks to their goals, challenges to overcome. Tension must build. What will happen next?

Like the Gumbo chef, I don’t begin with more than an overall story arc, a theme. What’s the point of my story? Who will move and have life in my story world? Then I add the spices, the tension points, conflict episodes. Writers call those points “beats.” Like a living heart, the plot’s heart has beats through which the story proceeds, until the ultimate climax and resolution.

Honestly, while I’m adding the spices, I’m not always sure of what I’m doing, but I know when the flavor sings. I try out scenes, change things around, add conflict, and kill my darlings (those glorious inspirational passages that just won’t fit in my tale).

Then I let my literary concoction simmer for a few days. When I return to it, and see so many needed edits, I realize Jerry Jenkins, author of over 100 books, is right when he says, “All writing is re-writing.”

I must be crazy to think this is great fun…but it is!