Wednesday, June 2, 2010

“Ain’t Misbehavin’”

By Peggy Webb

One of the most frequently asked questions at writers’ seminars is “Which comes first, characters or plot?” Hmmm. Great question. And the answer? Both!

I write both plot-driven novels (cozy mysteries) and character driven novels (women’s fiction). From incubation to synopsis to finished novel, I’ve never consciously separated character from plot. Certainly, I make character charts that list everything I already know about my characters as well as some things I want to find out. But plot is so intricately tied to character that in the process of creating one, I’m also creating the other.

The real magic of the creative process is that my characters frequently misbehave. Early in my career I had planned for a male protagonist to be a staid, reliable, rather up-tight lawyer. On page one he let me know he was a soccer coach. No matter what kind of logic I used, no matter how much I railed and argued with him, threatened and pleaded, he remained staunch. Finally, I relented. But with a warning: “If you’re not the best soccer coach ever, I’m not giving you any love scenes.” We came to an understanding, this stubborn soccer coach and I, and together we created a book readers loved.

And then there was Elvis. The dog. A basset hound, to be precise. I was going to make Elvis a sleuthing, mischievous ghost. But about the time my beloved Labrador retriever, Jefferson, had to race outside to do his business, my muse stood up and shouted, ELVIS IS A DOG. That worked for me. I made supper, went to bed and was promptly rousted out by Elvis, who had started talking and wouldn’t shut up. I stumbled into my office and took dictation for a very long time. Those scribbles on scrap paper eventually became chapter one of ELVIS AND THE DEARLY DEPARTED. They also set the format of all the Southern Cousins Mysteries. Elvis and his human mom, Callie, alternately narrate each novel.

Over the course of a twenty-five-year career, I’ve compiled a long list of characters who misbehave. I’m glad they did. I’m glad I’ve learned to trust them. My characters have led me down hidden pathways and into deep waters I might not have explored if I had insisted on sticking to the plan. They’ve surprised me, delighted me, made me laugh, made me cry, and above all, made me a better writer.

When you read a book, what are you looking for in the characters? Which ones stay with you long after the last page has been turned, and why? As a writer, do you turn your characters loose and let them misbehave?

Peggy is currently taking dictation while Elvis and the zany cousins, Callie and Lovie, misbehave in the fifth comic romp of the Southern Cousins Mystery Series. Book three, Elvis and the Memphis Mambo Murders, will be available September 28, 2010.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. Plot and characters are so tied up it's hard to separate the two. I love characters who have direction (no wimps, please) and who have enough flaws to make them interesting. But no whiners!

Peggy Webb said...

Good morning, Anonymous. You're very wise. :) One of my favorite characters is Hannibal Lecter. Such complexity. And certainly no wimp!

Thanks for stopping by.

Vicki Hinze said...

Peggy, I have what I call the Hundred Page Rule. When a character simply refuses to do what I want, I follow them for a hundred pages. If it works, I keep it. If not, I ditch it and go back to the point where they started acting up. :)

The conclusion I've drawn is that the characters simply allow us authors to think we're in control. They do what they want--and that drives the plot. Their story, their way.

We just get to follow behind and monitor what happens--trying to dodge any mud puddles and to keep the mud from squishing between our toes.

Susan Cushman said...

Before I started writing fiction (I mainly write essays and memoir) I used to laugh at fiction writers who talked about their characters as if they had minds of their own. Really? Aren't you the writer, controlling their every action, thought and word? And then I started work on a novel and oh my goodness. It's almost creepy, the way they act out at times. Now if the control-freak in me can just let go and let them guide me:-) Thanks for this post.

Laura Marcella said...

Great post! You're right; characters and plot do show up at the same time. You can't have one without the other. :)

As a reader, I love when a character feels real, like the author is writing a true story about someone they know. They have that special spark that makes you eager to find out what they're going to do next.

As a writer, I definitely do let my characters take the lead! I'd miss out on a lot of amazing scenes if I tried too hard to administer control.

Peggy Webb said...

Vicki, I love your 100 page rule, and got quite a chuckle out of the image of us (the authors) traipsing along behind a character to see and record his antics.

Susan, I chuckled at your wake-up call. I guess that's why writers hang around together as much as possible - we all get it!

Laura, thanks for the validation re: plot and character.

Andy said...

I know one of my characters has really gotten ahold of me when he or she starts speaking to me while I'm in the shower. Line after line of dialogue, and I can't get toweled off fast enough to get to my computer and write it all down. I'm now looking into waterproof pen and paper.

Peggy Webb said...

LOL, Andy! Good luck with the waterproof paper and pen. Characters always choose the most inconvenient times to visit!

Julie Johnstone said...


As a writer, I let my characters take me where they will. As a reader, I find I love characters who are passionate, different from the norm, take a stand or save someone when no ones else would, and have convicitions and beleifs so strong that when something hurts them I hurt.

Molly Swoboda said...

Shared a story with my husband this very afternoon about a character who was instrumental in furthering and solidifying my long-term profession. I was called upon to order a beer for an influential individual who assessed many by that very skill. This lifetime coffee drinker was bailed out by "old friend" Milo Sturgis, created by Jonathan Kellerman, when I heard him whisper, "Grolsch, of course".

Shel said...

I can well believe that Elvis wouldn't shut up, Peggy. That character keeps me in stitches, and I am thrilled beyond words to know there will be up to at least a fifth book in the series. It became one of my all time favorites somewhere about the fifth page of the first book.

Peggy Webb said...

Shel, you've made my day! Elvis number five is zipping along, the Valentines and Elvis as zany as ever. As the old saying goes, if God is willing and the creeks don't rise, I'll be writing many, many more!

And Molly...LOVE your story! If you ever need a witness that you're a coffee drinker, I'm the gal who can provide proof. :)

Anonymous said...

I love to discover characters that are "solid". They don't remain on the page. They become "people". I might have seen them at the mall or I can imagine them living next door or they become someone that I would love to meet. If I care about them, I become invested in the story. If the story line falls short of my expectations, I feel bad for the characters. This proves that plot and character development must go hand in hand.
I have always loved the strength of your characters. I enjoy knowing as much about them as they will allow you to print.
I am waiting IM-patiently for ELVIS AND THE MEMPHIS MAMBO MURDERS!
Love ya,

Peggy Webb said...

Thank you, Anita, the best daughter-in-law in the world! I love you right back!