I’m going to start by saying that the title of this blog is a bit misleading. I actually think there are five ingredients that make stories work. But the fifth ingredient is too mysterious to pin down. It’s the magic that comes when the four ingredients I’m going to outline come together in perfect harmony. It’s the crackle.
What are these four ingredients, you ask yourself? In my humble opinion, they are character, setting, plot and theme. And for the next four blogs, I’m going to be turning my attention to each of these, how writers use them and the effect they have on the reader.
For a lot of writers, (myself included) novels begin with character, with a person who they come to know as well as they know their friends and family. Writers need to have strong background knowledge of their characters if they are to make that character real, to themselves and to their readers.
There are three major ways that writers relate to their characters.
Guide: These writers feel that the character is telling them the story and allow themselves to be led along by them.
Puppet: These writers take a partnership approach. They think about what their characters might do, but ultimately decide what happens to them – pull their strings, so to speech.
Construct: These writers create their characters from the ground up, through character sketches, diagrams and life histories.
To get to know their characters, I suggest to students in my creative writing classes that they do a character sketch which includes:
Basic details: Name, age, where they live, appearance.
Personal details: Family status, hobbies.
Secret History: A secret from their past that no one else knows.
It also helps if writers come up with small but significant details about their characters. They could do things the way they think their character might do them: hold a pen, drink their tea or speak. I like to call this Method Writing. These are the sorts of details that make a character come to life, in the minds of the writer and the reader.
Interestingly, writers reveal very little of this knowledge to their readers. I call it the iceberg effect – 90% of what they know about their characters lies below the surface, just as 90% of an iceberg lies below the surface of the sea. If they were to reveal too much, too soon, the character would stop being interesting. So they hold those details in reserve and reveal them bit by bit as the story unfolds.
This is the appeal of character-driven novels – you’re pulled along by the characters. You read on because you’re fascinated by the characters and you want to find out what happens to them in the end. Even if not much is happening, the interaction between the characters holds your interest. If a writer does their work well, you’ll experience the character’s world the way the character does. And you won’t want to leave them behind when you close the book.