Saturday, March 24, 2012

CHARACTER-Telling the Story to Myself

I believe character makes a novel and plot is just what the character lives. I’ve loved being around people who were characters since I was a child. Real characters are bigger than life, live either on the edge or over the edge, and usually don’t give a fig about what people think of them. It was the “character” in the tiny village where my grandparents lived who dominated conversation.  People sat around on the porch in warm summers talking about the derring-do of the local characters. As a child I sat off to the side or behind the porch swing or beneath the dining table listening, a quiet little girl who was all ears.  No one was interested in the staid, upright, church-going, dull people who never did anything slanderous or risky. Talk, instead, was about the two drunks who decided one night to track down whatever strange creature was screaming in the woods that summer.  Off they went in the dead of night with a hoe and an axe, looking for the boogeyman. One said he would be the bait and the other would wait in hiding to hoe down the monster as it screamed past him chasing the other man.  This talk went on for weeks with the adults unable to agree whether the knot on one man’s head had been put there by a hoe wielded by a frightened, unsteady hand, or had he merely fallen across a root in the woods? Did the two men really hear the horrible beast scream in the night just feet away from them through the brush? These men were characters, and their plot was the decisions they made and the kind of life they lived.

I grew up, then, loving character both in real life and in fiction. What is THE GREAT GATSBY without Gatsby? What is Paul Theroux’s MOSQUITO COAST without the off-kilter father who takes his whole family off the grid and into a foreign jungle where he builds a machine to make ice? Plot and story flow from a great character, not usually the other way around. At least not for me.

Gold Rush Dream by Billie Sue Mosiman

In my novels I always think of the person, the character, first, and from that character comes her story. In GOLD RUSH DREAM, a suspense-filled western with two characters who fall in love, the first thing I wanted to do was write about a young woman who had grown up in the Texas woods with her immigrant parents and then suddenly loses them.  I asked myself questions about Rose, this young protagonist. How would she survive the harsh conditions of frontier life on her own? She was fiercely independent, but she was also young, unsophisticated, and untried by life. Along comes Travis, a lone trapper, who finds Rose rising from the root cellar in the middle of a crumbled, smoking cabin that had been burned to the ground by marauding Indians. Now the character of Rose has more conflict to endure–sparking off another strong character, Travis.  I could see in my inner vision these characters and I let them tell the story I wanted to read.

That’s another thing about writing novels. You get to tell yourself the story you’ve never read, but would like to read.  I wanted to know how Rose would fare and how Travis would keep her safe. I wanted to know what happened when they tried to cross the big wilderness of a frontier country to get Rose to her remaining family in California. I wanted to know if they would like one another and maybe even fall in love during such an arduous journey.  Then, what would happen about the outcast, mentally unstable Indian who tracked them, obsessed with Rose? Character led the way.

  WIDOW by Billie Sue Mosiman

In WIDOW I wrote the most feminist novel I ever penned. I did not set out to write a feminist novel. It was the character who lived the feminist ideal and though she was emotionally damaged by a tragic event–her husband killing her two children before her eyes then turning the gun on himself–this was a woman who pulled herself out of insanity and despair to grapple with what life had handed to her. Men, who I do love by the way--but I am not the character--do not fare well in WIDOW at the hands of Shadow, the woman who has determined she will never again let a man turn a woman or a child into a victim.  It was character who drove the novel.  Some readers confuse the author with their characters, and we can’t get away from that, but, in the main, fictional characters are a conglomerate of people an author has known or been acquainted with–sometimes they’re simply imagined in whole. In researching the subject matter of WIDOW I interviewed dozens of exotic dancers (the occupation Shadow is forced to take on since she was, like many woman, a housewife without skills or education). I interviewed a police detective in order to write about my detective in the novel. But the characters who found their way to the page were none of these real people, nor were they me. They were creations that interested me most, the characters who made me ask questions of them. What will you do now your children are murdered and your husband a suicide? What will you do now you’ve lost your home, your source of income, your mental balance? How do you live with the despair and fight your way out of it? If you take the law into your own hands, Shadow, how do you live with that and do you really have that right? What if a copycat killer begins to mimic your crimes, pinning them on you? How in the world can you stop him, how can you ever exonerate yourself? What if you’re falling in love with the one man, the detective, who is trying to find out who you really are? Those were the questions that drove the story. I wanted to know these answers and I believed readers would too.

Angelique by Billie Sue Mosiman

In my new novel, BANISHED, I was told the story about a little girl who seemed evil, who might be a voodoo queen in New Orleans. I began to think about that child and thought, well, what if she’s not a child at all? What if she’s a fallen angel who has taken that child’s body? What if she’s lived for hundreds of years? If that’s the story then how and when did she possess that body? How did she survive as a child without a parent all those hundreds of years? What was her mission, who were her companions? So I started with character only and from Angelique comes the story as she tells it to me. The reason I kept writing the book that Angelique is a part of was to find out what was going to happen next.

Without character, strong, resilient, sympathetic character, plot doesn’t even matter. Unless I care about the protagonist, I have no reason to follow the story. If I don’t care about the characters I have no questions for them, therefore no plot comes forth. All of my novels and stories are driven by character.

I am still listening to the stories I heard while hiding under the dining table, but now I listen to them in my head and try to translate them into a story people want to read. First I have to want to read it. Only then can I hope someone else will. Characters, the people in my novels, are as real to me as people I know and because of who they are, what’s happened to them, and the directions they take, I simply follow along telling the story of their lives–telling the story to myself.


  1. So true.. If an author can't make a character "live", there is no tale to be told period..

  2. I probably should have talked more about conflict, too. A static character with no problems, living a happy life, can't keep our interest. The poor man or woman has to be in dire straits, or at the very least have a problem to solve that will take something out of the character or change the character. Thanks for reading the blog, AJ.