Recently I was approached by fellow author and Book Connector Peter Taylor-Gooby about writing a post for my blog. Peter mentioned that he’s a social scientist by day and has a particular interest in what he calls ‘social science fiction’. As I found his ideas intriguing, I said yes. Here Peter tells us about the difficulties he encountered when planning his novel and gives a few tips which helped him along the way.
So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Peter…
What should come first in planning a novel – the characters or the plot?
Writing a novel is like building a house of cards: change one character, realign the plot just a tiny bit and it all comes tumbling down.
As a newbie author I thought I wanted to write plot-driven fiction. My background’s in social science and I wanted to talk about issues of trust and empathy and how market capitalism weakens and distorts them. Imaginative writing is much more fun than writing academic articles (but much harder work). Then I found the characters I’d imagined wouldn’t do what I wanted them to – they’d suddenly say and do things that weren’t in the plot-line and the whole house of cards would collapse and have to be rebuilt.
The next attempt started out from characters. I thought them through, wrote sketches of them and set them off. Again I couldn’t control them. They developed and changed in ways that I really wanted to pursue, but at the cost of demolishing everything. Back to the starting point!
So how do you make your characters do what you want them to? Three possible techniques:
- Write backwards: (I’ve tried this in a number of short stories). You get the characters where you want them with all the loose ends tied up and the twists and turns unravelled and take them back. Problem: you find they couldn’t have been the same people you thought they were when they started out on this adventure. You think you’ve got control because you’ve fixed the end point, but that doesn’t mean you can tie down how everything starts off.
- Shift point of view: if the character starts off in a direction you don’t want, you shift PoV away from them, so you see them from outside. You don’t have to deal with all the internal passions, hopes and feelings that drove them where they are going, they become a smaller part of the world and it’s your new PoV character you are wrestling with. Problem: if you are handling multiple PoVs the reader has to be prepared and the novel has to be structured around that approach. In any case, it’s often the characters you can’t control that are most interesting to the readers – and to you.
- Try and work out what’s going on – why did this character in that situation say and do that? Why did they feel the way did, what were their emotions, their responses to the other characters? Did they change, or was there something else going on that you, the author, hadn’t initially understood? Now you’re getting somewhere (maybe).
These issues bear on how you think about the job of the author. To what extent is writing a matter of describing a world that’s in some sense already out there, of constructing it from one’s own imagination, or of exploring something that you don’t yet fully understand?
Novel-writing involves all three in different mixes. John Lanchester’s Capital, for example, rests very much on our shared conceptions of contemporary London and the plausible lives and feelings and aspirations of a range of people within it. It’s a world we are convinced is there and in a sense is being described, yet the people it includes are real because of Lanchester’s skill in realising them and that involves creative imagination. But it’s much more than simple imaginative creation. The people in the novel develop and the whole created world has a trajectory. The patterns of the novel (the story of the immigrant builder who finds a fortune and gives it up to the rightful owner, or of the aspirant artist who oversteps the mark and ends up in gaol with his life ruined) tell us new things about choice and the value of moral action even within the huge and diverse city, where at first sight anything goes.
So how to handle all this? In my current work I tried to side-step the choice between character and plot. I start with situations – vivid scenes in which people are interacting, which set them off in new direction, conflicts, debates, meetings, ceremonies – and try to get them on paper. Most go straight in the bin, but some are there, with their own life, on the page so powerfully that you can’t throw them away and that’s when you can start on the story. So it’s not a choice between character and plot – both emerge in interaction with each other. After all, how do you know someone’s character until you’ve seen them make choices in real situations?
Thanks very much for that fascinating article, Peter, and for the useful tips as well.
Readers, what do you think? And are you planners or ‘pantsters’? I, for one, agree with Peter that character and plot are intimately intertwined. And I find the idea of using fiction to explore ideas and change people’s perceptions about society to be an intriguing one. I’ll be adding The Baby Auction to my reading list.
Peter’s novel, The Baby Auction, is published by The Conrad Press and is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Baby-Auction-Peter-Taylor-Gooby-ebook/dp/B01IKW9I3O/
It is also available to purchase direct from the publisher: http://theconradpress.com/