What Truths Do Your Characters Know?

When writing a novel, many authors operate as though they are wearing the same blinkers as their horses. That comes about because a writer is exploring simultaneously the ranges that characters and plots can achieve. This allied approach makes sense, since you need to find interesting things for your characters to do in order to show what they’re like.

Unfortunately, this organic line of attack tends to produce less twisty plots. While you are charting the course for a main character, you’re usually writing with limits on his point of view (1st-person or 3rd-person limited narration). This is where the blinkers come in. You’re trying so hard to conceive of what he’s thinking in any given moment that other concerns fall to the wayside.

Yet you don’t have to start at the beginning of the race. To extend the metaphor, you should examine all of the horses, by color and number, before penning “Chapter 1.” Writing initial character sketches is a good practice, but that’s still operating on the character side of the ledger. How do you devise a better plot?

You set up the novel by writing out what each major character knows about the story’s events at each stage. For instance, if a wife is the chief villain, the one who killed her husband, she knows about the murder, of course. She committed it. She expects consequences, such as the police investigating the murder. She can prepare answers for a detective. But what will come at her out of the blue? Like your protagonist?

That is the character who usually knows the least about what actually happened. What does he learn and when? You want the novel to proceed by a series of discoveries, or steps. So what are the steps in the progression? Who knows the truth about that step? At each point you then have to consider that character. How does she know that truth? What is the overall story, according to her? To return to the example of the murderous wife, what “truth” does her sister tell? Is she aware of what likely happened or not?

When you plan out schematics beforehand, you can link plot developments to certain characters much more easily. You may find that a character who divulges one truth will later tell another. How is that step accomplished? Because it is volunteered (implying malice toward the one accused) or forced out of her by the protagonist? You do not have to provide all of the steps before you start, but by working this way, you will already have a better idea of how to add twists to the plot.

Exercise: You can use personality to determine how a character perceives the truth. A basic example of this is the detective who leaps at the obvious solution in order to reduce his case load. Think to yourself: if you have an offbeat character, could she provide “truths” to the protagonist that completely screw him up?

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
—Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.