Writing a Character Driven Novel

by Intermittent Rain ~ January 14th, 2014. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.

* Modified June 24th, 2015 *

I’ve completed four novels to date, all connected with some form of writing competition; three NaNoWriMos and one 3DayNovel; a 23,500 word submission which subsequently expanded into a 60,000 word novel.

The one that I’m working on now is the first non-competition generated novel. It’s also the most character-driven and has some of the thickest writing that I’ve done other than in some short stories. Thick meaning dense; the words mean something, the writing style and topics are not light and superficial, the characters, situations, dialogue are not thin throwaways produced simply to titillate or entertain or to get from one plot point to the next. The main character comes from a dark background and she’s trying to adapt to a low or lower-middle class world and is discovering that she has some unusual talents that point her in a direction that she never would have considered. A very genre-esque plot technique and the story definitely is not without genre elements, but I find the character irresistible and I think she’s up for it.

But the process of writing is interesting. The first four chapters, followed by some background-exposing chapters, presented in memoir or reminiscing form to be inserted into the story at unknown points, were fairly easy to write and allowed me to define the character. Then I wrote some early plot-necessary chapters and scenes, followed by some middle section plot-necessary chapters, though I’m missing some sections and I’m not convinced that the order is correct. These grew out of some characters and situations that I established in the early writing, so they seemed to flow well enough, though, I am sensing now that I lost some of the character’s voice, some of her unique and interesting characteristics in these plot scenes, falling back instead on some default hero/heroine personality that is indistinguishable from some of my other central characters, particularly the journalist-investigator of two and a half novels that I wrote over the past two years.

This revision is part of the process that I find interesting. Last week I reached a point where I was no longer comfortable with the writing that I was trying to add. Partly this is because I don’t know exactly how the story ends so I don’t know what I’m working toward, but, I’m drawing close (over 65,000 words) and what I have planned so far lacks the inevitability that I want. If I were to go ahead, dump another 20,000 words, and finish it off, I’d feel as if I had disrespected the quality of the opening, let myself down.

Instead, I’m analyzing the novel to date, focusing on the first materials that wrote. I started with a page of general thoughts because I felt I was losing track of miscellaneous ideas, especially since I haven’t written every idea that I’ve had, and what I have written is incomplete and missing some scenes necessary for the plot, such as it stands now. Then another page of worries and things that I felt are missing or underexposed. That led to a list of my character’s key personality traits, which led to a list of type of situations where these traits can be exposed. Then I looked for themes, particularly those within the key backstory chapter, the one that largely defines how she came to be who she is now. This process is a lot like the ones I remember using to write papers in English Lit classes in university, except that the novel is incomplete and, as I discovered, the consistency is missing.

Having the themes drove me back to the situation and personality analysis to see where I can force the themes to carry through, to develop consistency and meaning, and that has led me to the where I am now, editing chapters to bring out her character and reinforce themes. I still don’t know how it’s supposed to end, but hopefully I’m getting closer.


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