A common question for novelists asks whether their book is driven primarily by the development of its characters or by the actions of its plot. It’s not one that had been front-and-center for me until my newest work began taking shape. For one thing, my previous fiction all falls under the category of Experimental, and, for another, I’ve usually been of a contrarian nature. Maybe the earlier stories were more event or episode driven than action propelled, and characters added whatever they had. As I’ll say, up till now. Or, as I might add, a journalist is more concerned about what’s happened than the motivations of the individuals involved.
My new novel, What’s Left, was initially envisioned as a kind of post-hippie history – an update flowing from the ending of my first published novel, in fact. But then it began turning into a different kind of history, going back further to her immigrant great-grandparents. Well, at that point the story could develop either way, based on the characters or their encounters. What clarified the direction for me was my decision to have her father vanish in an avalanche halfway around the globe, which precipitates her obsession to know just who he really was. And that made it character-driven.
As she discovered more about her father – and her colorful, extended family – I realized I wanted to know more about Cassia herself, starting with her reactions to the clues she was uncovering. In the end, What’s Left is about her, told in her voice from age 11 into her early 30s. As for the history? It’s bound to be in her blood.
Here’s how this passage about her father read before going into the stock pot to simmer down:
To us, these charts are like the specifications for purchasing a new automobile. They give us a view of the potential performance of the machine. But reading about zero-to-sixty acceleration isn’t the same thing as sitting in the car and punching the accelerator yourself. There are cases of people who have been given incredible configurations in the stars who turn out to be lousy drivers. When they mess up their karma, the whole thing can crash. Richard Nixon’s a perfect example of a good chart, bad-ass karma.
Well, in the early draft, this was guy-to-guy talk, even though it involved astrology.
But it did have me considering some promising people I’ve known and what’s happened in their lives, as well as some of the characters I’ve created in my own fiction. Admittedly, while many of those in person have fallen way short of my expectations, I’ve become quite fond of some of the others in my fiction. (I’ll spare you the list.)
But back to that matter of potential. Who’s one of your favorite characters in literature or the movies? And why?