Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Main character and SOTP

I’ve learned from the writing community that those who write novels do it two primary ways. Some figure out the whole story ahead of time and sketch out a well-planned plot. Others work more spontaneously. When they start, they don’t know everything that is going to happen. Instead, the story unfolds for them as they write it. Sometimes they find characters having a mind of their own and going off in directions the author hadn’t planned or thought about. I know what they mean because I had that experience with a different set of characters many years ago.

The truth is, seat of the pants (SOTP) is the way I wrote Tangled Strands. All I knew when I started was how things were to end up. I had few if any ideas of what was going to happened on the way. I remember thinking up the childbirth scene in the back seat of a coworker’s car on the way to a conference in central Indiana. After I got there, I scribbled it out on a small piece of lined notebook paper. Back in Texas, many evenings I wrote scenes in my head as I drove to and from my evening teaching at the community college. When I got home, I would still have enough evening left to keyboard the scene into my computer.

The characters of Tangled Strands are what is called, in acting circles, an “ensemble cast.” There are five main characters and a sixth who comes later. Many years after writing it, I started worrying about two things. The bigger of the two we’ll get into further down the line. The other was the question of a main character.

Believe it or not, I couldn’t figure out who from that ensemble cast was my main character . Did I actually have one? Was it necessary to have one? Towards the end of the story, the character Sharon really became the main one, but she didn’t appear “on stage” until chapter 11. I now know that an ensemble cast is definitely not the way a beginning writer should go.

That brings me to the 2005 Florida Christian Writers’ Conference. One of the course offerings—six hours of instruction over the three days—was with Angela Ewell Hunt on novel writing. I didn’t know then what a prestigious and prolific writer she is, but I thoroughly enjoyed the course and learned so much.

At the end of class one day she promised that the next day she would teach us a foolproof formula around which one could build any plot. The formula worked perfectly built around the sketch of a skeleton, and the first part of the skeleton was the head.

Guess what the head stood for? The main character. According to Angie, every story must start with a main character.

Ouch. It sounds so logical and simple now, but not then. The character I had started with was a key one, but she did not—-in all my unplanned plotting—-end up the main one. The idea threw me into a dither for a few hours, but that evening I bypassed evening get-togethers and went to my room with my journal, determined to figure this out.

What exactly would my story look like if I started with Sharon? I knew that if I were serious about this writing challenge, if I wasn’t going to waste the money I had spent on the conference, then I had to put into practice what I learned.

That meant Chapter 1 had to happen to Sharon.

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