One of the most frequently asked questions at writers’ seminars is “Which comes first, characters or plot?” Hmmm. Great question. And the answer? Both!
I write both plot-driven novels (cozy mysteries) and character driven novels (women’s fiction). From incubation to synopsis to finished novel, I’ve never consciously separated character from plot. Certainly, I make character charts that list everything I already know about my characters as well as some things I want to find out. But plot is so intricately tied to character that in the process of creating one, I’m also creating the other.
The real magic of the creative process is that my characters frequently misbehave. Early in my career I had planned for a male protagonist to be a staid, reliable, rather up-tight lawyer. On page one he let me know he was a soccer coach. No matter what kind of logic I used, no matter how much I railed and argued with him, threatened and pleaded, he remained staunch. Finally, I relented. But with a warning: “If you’re not the best soccer coach ever, I’m not giving you any love scenes.” We came to an understanding, this stubborn soccer coach and I, and together we created a book readers loved.
And then there was Elvis. The dog. A basset hound, to be precise. I was going to make Elvis a sleuthing, mischievous ghost. But about the time my beloved Labrador retriever, Jefferson, had to race outside to do his business, my muse stood up and shouted, ELVIS IS A DOG. That worked for me. I made supper, went to bed and was promptly rousted out by Elvis, who had started talking and wouldn’t shut up. I stumbled into my office and took dictation for a very long time. Those scribbles on scrap paper eventually became chapter one of ELVIS AND THE DEARLY DEPARTED. They also set the format of all the Southern Cousins Mysteries. Elvis and his human mom, Callie, alternately narrate each novel.
Over the course of a twenty-five-year career, I’ve compiled a long list of characters who misbehave. I’m glad they did. I’m glad I’ve learned to trust them. My characters have led me down hidden pathways and into deep waters I might not have explored if I had insisted on sticking to the plan. They’ve surprised me, delighted me, made me laugh, made me cry, and above all, made me a better writer.
When you read a book, what are you looking for in the characters? Which ones stay with you long after the last page has been turned, and why? As a writer, do you turn your characters loose and let them misbehave?
Peggy is currently taking dictation while Elvis and the zany cousins, Callie and Lovie, misbehave in the fifth comic romp of the Southern Cousins Mystery Series. Book three, Elvis and the Memphis Mambo Murders, will be available September 28, 2010.