Tag Archives: fiction

Start with Character

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.

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?

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About Those “Storytelling Issues”

Write what you read? I have always been, since my Nancy Drew days, an addictive mystery and spy novel reader. So that’s what I should write, right? My first two novels were indeed mysteries. Unfortunately my favorite author by that time was Elizabeth George. I had read every one of her novels to date that I could get my hands on. Then I started studying her style. Bad idea…not studying her style, but trying to write a complicated multi-level story on the first try. I would have done better emulating the early Agatha Christie.

An agent who had kindly perused my first novel deemed that I had “storytelling issues.” My narrative was episodic, a boring tale of people working, eating, hiking and dating. I tried to make my scenes “realistic.” They were realistically boring. The characters had no goals, only the story imposed any goal and that was to find the killer of the crime. No gore for me, the crime was about stealing secrets on network design in a software company, something that I knew a lot about.

There was virtually no action unless I forced it on the story. All the characters spoke to each other in direct confrontation. There were big secrets but no small secrets, there was lying in a grand way but no small deceptions. The characters were interesting and multi-cultural as in my real environment, but everything but the crime was out in the open. So where was the mystery–where was the feeling of mystery? Suspense was little understood by me and I did not see it as a tool to use here.

All of these issues and more leech the storytelling from the narrative. I wrote open issues, explained a lot and directed the reader toward plot motions because I had spent 25 years writing business and technical papers which were intended to do exactly this. My writing skills had been honed by fountain pen in journal which led to exploring feelings and opinions and what people did to me all day. All of which adds to a very boring writing style for novels.

Even before deciding on a genre, you need to have a story:  2 characters in conflict during a specific place and time. The story is the story of that relationship. Elizabeth George uses this approach and offers her process in her nonfiction book,  Write Away.

Story is contradiction. It’s fine to write about what people do all day like building network systems (as long as you keep the detail at a high story level). The story in the novel will focus on the contradiction of everything that goes as it should. The whole system is awry, a particular process has broken, the security is at risk. Whatever it is, the reader must feel it being wrong. So textbook descriptions of network systems are out. The switch automatically flips to connect the ambulance to the hospital to send the patient’s heart signals. The switch doesn’t work. Contradiction leads to problem.

I made the last example easy by involving a human heart. That’s a good thing to do, but unfortunately my story had nothing to do with life support systems. The design of the network was being filched and leaked to a competitor in China. Well, this is the stuff of spy thrillers. I had a lot of storytelling to lay down before I could reach those readers. Reaching the reader is the job of the characters. Their struggle is the reader’s struggle. The reader can only identify with one character at a time.

The reader becomes vested in one character’s story goal. What does the character wants and what will happen if he fails to get it? This is one of the first jobs of the writer is to hook the reader. Often hooks are thought of as plot devices–and there has to be some of that as well. But the character must have a desire so strong that it pulls him/her and the reader across the story arc, beginning to end.

In the next discussion we will look at story in the first chapter and what it must contain to keep the reader with you, no matter what type of story you are writing.

Look at the first chapter of your work in progress (WIP).
Who is the main character? Where is he? When is the time frame?
Who is the second character? What is their conflict?
Conflicts can also involve environment (nature v man) or society (manners v individualism). Does something like this replace your 2nd character?
What else is in your first scene?
Have you hooked the reader into your story? Into your character?

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The Long Journey from Writer to Novelist

 In the beginning was the word…

as you can read in my Jo Meador Author blog, where I describe my passion for writing as “the dream I’ve held since nursery school …when I first saw a teacher turn a piece of chalk into a word that she picked from a book.” Foremost I wrote journal entries, the first penciled into a Betty Betz diary with key and lock when I was eleven. Turning twelve and hard up on cash, I erased all the childish entries and replaced them with equally unexciting events. Nothing ever happened to me.

At thirteen, still hungry to create my own written word, I took a Creative Writing class in summer school. Along the way from three to thirteen I had attempted stories and little verses that pleased my mother. By the time I was twenty I quit school and enrolled in a correspondence course presumably staffed by famous writers. After a few stories which had received little notice and sketchy commentary from decidedly NOT famous writers, I quit that too, discouraged. Now a wise old twenty-one, still living under my mother’s roof, I decided that I had not lived enough life to write about it. I then set out to get a life.

That life took off in the next fifteen years as I acquired a husband, spawned a daughter, earned a bachelor’s degree in English, and a secondary teaching credential. I had also put behind me a series of clerical jobs and two teaching posts to take the challenge of a career in data processing. That in turn drove me to a specialty in data management. In that time I had changed my mental orientation from liberal arts—music, art and literature—to mathematics and engineering, topics I was never good at in school. There was no miracle here, though. Fifteen years in music performance was the catalyst to a successful career in computing.

I took to my new life with zest, doing well at every turn. Funny thing, though, what made me so successful was all the work I had done earlier to build my writing muscles. I was still ruminating life through my journal entries, of course, but I was also more prolific in finished work than I had ever been before: writing executive briefs, technical proposals, reference guides, white papers, and dozens of the varying systems documents required by project management methodologies. I was also giving pitches to a cadre of audiences from vice presidents to clerical workers in banking, telecommunications and aerospace. I developed technical training programs that led to teaching opportunities at extension schools in San Francisco and Seattle. The burgeoning creative writer, so unsure of herself, had become a business/technology writer of some note primarily because she was in a field of professionals whose relationship with the written word was far from comfortable.

Arriving at 40 I realized with horror—really, a deep pit growing in my gut of having missed the last boat to Paradise—that I had not even begun to scrape at the edges of my BIG life’s goal. I wanted to be published. Not only that but I wanted to be writing fiction. [Aside: You would think that I might have consolidated these divergent desires into a combined Publish in fiction, but I hadn’t gotten that clever yet.]

I addressed the publication issue by turning my computing expertise into articles that were of interest to other data management specialists eager to jump on the data resource management band wagon. Those first articles turned into an opportunity to pitch an idea for a journal where I became a consulting editor and major contributor. Here I expanded my style to include columns, book reviews, interviews as well as articles. The journal  also gave me an opportunity to experience firsthand the roller coaster ride in the publishing world where mergers and acquisitions created chaos in the editorial room. Before I resigned, I had trained eight senior editors in data resource management jargon.

As my time was absorbed in working, writing and teaching, I felt tremendously dissatisfied with life. Yet here I was living my dream! Or was I? Not yet. A major piece was missing. In the wake of all that success, I turned my back on the good life and chased the mystical beast of fiction—not just any fiction, but the art of writing novels.

Another transformation.


While I write in concepts, my mind is conjuring images, such as the image from nursery school.

Scan your own experiences with as much objecivity as you can. Therein lies the fodder for your own writing, the impetus for shaping stories and the emotions that will give your characters life. The undercurrents that drive you will be the motivation of your characters. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.

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The purpose of this site is to share experiences in the often hazy world of the emerging novelist.

Author Jo Meador’s web site: jomeador.com


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