Character: the cake under the frosting
January 29, 2007
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In the course of chatting with some friends about a story they’re working on, and giving solicited advice, I crystallized a few thoughts about character that I realize have somehow become second nature to me, so I figured I’d share ’em here. The story outline I was given was basically an outline of the plot: Joe goes to the store. Mary takes advantage of Joe’s absence to call her ex and plan a lunch. At the lunch, Joe’s co-worker, who has been following Mary, sees the two of them together and decides to follow her ex instead, leading to an amusing mistaken identity scene when the ex goes into the back door of the small bookstore in the strip mall where he works, and Joe’s co-worker counts the doors wrong, thinking he’s gone into the nail salon. Etc. I was also on a panel at a convention recently in which several people were talking about plots they wanted to write, along the lines of “my character is the best at what he does, so how do I make him believable without having him just solve all the problems and end the story,” to which I responded, “well, what’s the point of the story?” and got back, “Good question.”
My advice hinged around discovering the character underpinnings. The plots were fine and sounded like interesting contrivances, but hearing them without the character story hearing someone order a cake by telling the baker what kind of frosting and decoration they wanted. It’ll look right, but I have a feeling they might be surprised at what they find when they bite into it. Before you can get to the level of “what happens,” you need to worry about why it happens. Why does Mary want to get back together with her ex? What is Joe’s co-worker doing following her, and why does he switch to following the ex? Why is the nail salon next to the bookstore? You get the idea.
The difference between story and plot is, loosely, the difference between the cake and the frosting. The plot is what people remember about a book, but the story, the journey of the characters, is what makes the book memorable. It’s the foundation, without with the frosting is just empty sugar. Are there cases where that isn’t true, like, say, thrillers? Sure. I devoured all of Clive Cussler’s work back in junior high school. He writes great action with great settings. Do I remember any of his books as well as the Frederick Forsyth short story about the guy who hires a killer to get rid of the husband of the woman he’s fallen in love with? Nope. Both thriller writers, but Forsyth had a better eye for the characters that made his plot more memorable. Not to say Cussler wasn’t an enjoyable read; he was. And I’m sure there are people out there who read his work over and over and love it. I just think that stories with character journeys grip us harder and stay with us longer, and so when asked for advice, that’s what I give.