Action and Actors

When a fledgling novelist’s reason for writing a book is working out a clever concept, the entangled linkage between plotting and characters can be overlooked. In this case the characters are chosen in order to advance the markers of the concept. I’ll pick one in the tech field as a running example: say, an app that administers shocks when someone is not telling the truth. How can that plot line run thin?

The protagonist is perhaps a psychologist who is sick of her patients lying to her. She enlists the help of a young developer to create a program for a smart watch. After successful initial trials, the device works all too well on a rich patient, who in couples therapy reveals how many affairs he’s had in the past five years. He sues, becoming the antagonist. Their appearance in court draws the attention of law enforcement officers, who for obvious reasons want a truth serum.

You could see this concept spinning out for a while. Yet by the time you reach page 150, you may find that the watch is functioning like a super power. Slap it on someone’s wrist, she tells a truthful anecdote, and move on. It works every time. Precisely because it works so well, boredom sets in. Oh, right, the President wasn’t telling the truth. How about that . . . yawn.

The concept is, at its base, intellectual. The aspects of the whiz-bang discovery are mechanistic. Worst of all, the characters don’t have any glue holding them together. They are silos performing their separate functions. The reason the plot runs dry is it lacks the milk of human kindness—i.e., emotions in general.

Concept without characters leads to a dead end. While the pyrotechnics are fine, you have merely a caper novel if the events are not helping to build character arcs. That’s why it’s important, at an early stage to consider how a core cast—let’s say five people—might be set up early on in order to create conflicts that keep the novel going. 

If you want the truth watch to cause moral issues for the psychologist’s wife, for instance, you should consider how the partners worked together before it is developed. Then you’ll see ways in which their problems can be exacerbated by the watch. What if the psychologist herself ended up admitting unpleasant truths? If the reader has gotten to know her well, she’s the one we want to find out about more than anyone else.

Exercise: Look over your draft (more likely, partial draft) with an eye out for opposites. If the tech developer is remote and nerdy, devise a character who is fun and bubbly that he initially disdained but grows to like. Does the bubbly one see obvious problems if everyone wore the watch? Now put that into play.

“What we now call ‘finance’ is, I hold, an intellectual perversion of what began as warm human love.” —Robert Graves

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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