Creating Characters: Their Actions Drive the Plot!

April 25, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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IMG_4304Next time you look at a row of books on a shelf, think of how the authors of these novels had to figure out what was going to happen in these stories to keep you turning the pages—in other words:  the plot.

When I was in the process of planning out my next novel, That Summer in Cornwall, which is a stand-alone sequel to A Cottage by the Sea (a book I’d written a decade before), I remembered the words of a very experienced storyteller that once said, “What do your characters want, and what are they willing to do to get it?”photo-7

After going the distance on six 100,000-word-plus novels, I finally get it:  doing something to get what a person wants implies action…and action and conflict are elements that drive a plot.

It’s not that complicated, when you think about it, but figuring out what “they” are willing to do to get what they want requires imagination, for we all know that people will do all sorts of things—either admirable or despicable–to get what they want.  It’s the author’s job to figure what a character would do, depending on—well—their character…what sorts of folks they are.  (We can take up the all-important “biographical sketch” many authors write, early on, in another blog post here…)

Image-20-199x300Meredith Champlin, the heroine in blue jeans and Wellington boots, basically wants to re-boot her life. With her service dog, Holly, trotting at her side, she escapes a dead-end relationship with a charming but alcoholic rodeo rider, along with her grueling job as a pediatric emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital in Wyoming to spend a few months at the “Money Pit” belonging to her cousin who has married an impecunious British landowner with a castle and an estate that is reeling from the current economic crisis.Finding-the-Right-Dog-Obedience-2

 

 

 

 

Added to that, Meredith, who ran a pet therapy program at her hospital, wants to help raise much needed cash by founding the Barton Hall Canine Obedience Academy, to say nothing of trying to turn her computer-addicted, eleven-year-old “Beverly Hills Brat” legal ward–whose mother has just died in a plane crash–into a decent human being.

And what does the hero want?

13980_10151339222221781_863939389_nSimple.  To be left in peace–far from the woman who betrayed him before he departed for Afghanistan as a member of the Royal Army’s bomb squadron—and to avoid his mother who lives in a Cornish village near the castle, a woman who virtually abandoned him and his two brothers when they were young.  Now a newly-minted veterinarian and large farm animal manager, the only living creature he likes and trusts besides his employers is his Border Collie, T-Rex, who is his partner on the local Cornwall Search and Rescue Team.Image 8

And what do the canines want?  To stay as close together as possible, which is how the two protagonists in That Summer in Cornwall meet in the first place!

See how this works?  Ask what the main characters seek, and the rest practically takes care of itself!

Ciji at work in Portofino Office 4-07

 

The hard part, of course, comes when the author has to start typing….

 

Creating Characters: What Do They Want?

April 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image-20-199x300When I originally had the notion for That Summer in Cornwall, my plan was to have my heroine, arriving in late May at shabby chic Barton Hall from Wyoming, get involved in the nursery business that had saved her cousin’s family mansion from bankruptcy a decade earlier in the prequel, A Cottage by the Sea.images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ella-holding-Targhee-sheepHowever, Meredith Champlin, an emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital, is no gardener like her cousin, Blythe Barton Teague.  She was born and raised on a western sheep ranch, so I began to ruminate on what her life goals and desires might be, recalling what a wise person in the writing business once said.  “Ask what your characters want—and what would they be willing to do to get it!”

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First I had to ask myself: what elements are common both to Wyoming and Cornwall?  The latter is a place where many immigrants came  to the American West from Britain’s tin mines and fields to work in the copper and coal mines in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Montana and till the vast open stretches of land, raising animals for the nation’s food supply in the years following the pioneer days.

 

corgi_1Cattle and Sheep need herding, I thought, which meant dogs. Meredith, 35, is a pediatric nurse, so what if she had raised Corgi herding dogs as a rancher’s daughter, and also developed a pet therapy program at her hospital?url-1

Bingo! Corgis are known as “The Queen’s Dog”—so obviously they would exist in Cornwall, too, especially because a lot of sheep are raised in the beautiful fields and on the moors in the West Country.

 

 

 

 

So, I had the answer to “what does Meredith want?”  She wants to be deeply involved in the world of working dogs and would never leave her beloved Corgi, Holly, behind when life’s circumstances land her six thousand miles from her home. It was a natural fit that she could help keep Barton Hall solvent by founding the Barton Hall Canine Obedience Academy on the castle grounds.

 

images-1And what about her past?  She also wants to forget an unhappy love affair with a charming, alcoholic rodeo rider and forge an entirely new life away from injured and dying children after a decade of intense, worthwhile, but exhausting service.  In other words, she wants a new beginning and a way of re-inventing herself and her life’s work.Image 12

And as it happens, in Cornwall, working dogs are also trained in the field of search and rescue, due to the type of terrain where “holiday makers” routinely fall off cliffs that skirt the dramatic coastline facing the English Channel, or get lost on the remote moors, or disappear down deserted mine shafts left over from the previous century’s tin industry.

 

article-1362275-0D710BF7000005DC-485_468x365Then one of those “Eureka!” thoughts struck.   The hero could be a veteran of a dog bomb-sniffing unit in the British Forces, late of Afghanistan, who, along with his Border Collie T-Rex, has returned to Cornwall and is now a veterinarian and a member of the Cornwall Search and Rescue Team.  All he wants is to be left alone to nurse his psychic wounds that vastly predate his service in the Royal Army, though at his core, he yearns for a sense of safety, connection with kindred spirits, and “home.”

So, through the magic of asking (and answering) “What do the main characters want?” I could begin to write Chapter One of That Summer in Cornwall.

The question “What are the characters willing to do to get what they want?” is the engine that drives the plot…a subject that I will probably discuss another time for readers who speculate about such things.  It’s a subject I am certainly wondering about as I prepare to start work on That Autumn in Edinburgh..a sequel two hundred years after the conclusion of my first novel, Island of the Swans