My first novel was a cozy mystery set in Issaquah, Washington, a picturesque little town at the foot of three ancient mountain tops. The main character was a twenty-three year old female named Kate who was coming of age in the eighties.
My killer—the antagonist—was a network engineer in his thirties who was stealing the network architecture from his employers. These two characters were drawn to each other, so I made them as likeable to each other as possible. In fact, I made Kate as likeable to everybody as possible.
- PROBLEM: No conflict. This was such a problem that in the end I had to create a new character, a crony of the killer, who became the villain.
- PROBLEM: Tension disintegrated with every new scene.
- PROBLEM: I didn’t see the problem. I had not yet learned to create conflict in character, something I later learned from the world of drama and play writing, contradiction, a subject we’ll return to in a future blog.
Kate was a delightful girl. She lived well in her environment, got along with most people and the reader found no issues with her. In short, she was most boring as a character.
So with all these pleasantries, I gave my reader very little to be interested in, so I made up an exciting opening to hook the reader. The opening was dramatic and exciting, a man jumped off the ferry in the middle of Seattle’s Elliott Bay. The opening event had action and drama and definitely a creative pull into story but, alas, it had little to do with the story. It did become, after much writing and literary machinations, the inciting incident of the plot, but it also stretched the story into convoluted and implausible directions. The tone of the opening did not reflect the tone of the remainder of the book, the pacing was a false cue as well. The book did not deliver a story that warranted this opening.
LESSON: Start with Character.
Define the main character first. Understand the main character (a detective in a mystery) on her own terms. What is she like? What does she think like? What behaviors define her? Journal her for a month or so to drive out her core.
We will look at character in depth later.
With the main character established on her own terms, then turn to the antagonist (the villain, in a mystery). The antagonist should be opposite the hero in core values and characteristics that are important to the central plot. So if the central plot revolves around religious values, the conflict should arise from opposite values of beliefs and spiritual vitality. If the plot involves law and the courts, the contradiction between the two characters should emerge from different ideas or applications of jurisprudence.
The contradiction between these two characters will drive the action and reaction of the drama. It is from this base contradiction that the tension and conflict of the plot arises.
A LITTLE STRETCH FOR YOU
Look again at your main character and your antagonist.
How do they differ?
How are they the same?
What is the heart of your story’s conflict?
What drives the conflict from page 1 to the end? Does something else besides character drive the tension in your story?