Writing: Character-driven plots

I’ve repeated probably too many times that I’m a plot driven person, but if my clever twists and turns aren’t driven by characters that readers want to spend hours with, I’m in trouble. When the last page is read and the book hits The End, what do readers remember? I’d bet on characters. With that in mind, I’ve paid more attention lately to character-driven books.

My friend, Karen Lenfestey, writes women fiction. The plots of her books aren’t driven by murders or battles (two of my favorite things:), but by how characters deal with life-changing challenges. The conflict and tension are more internal than external. How do you build a plot based on emotions instead of good vs. bad? I invited to her my blog to tell us how she does it.

How would you define women’s fiction?
I’d say women’s fiction is about the complicated relationships in a woman’s life: the dynamic between a boyfriend or spouse, children, siblings and girlfriends. Once, at a writer’s conference, I said that the main character needs to be likable and the mystery author beside me disagreed. He said, “My main character is a horrible drunk.” For me, if the character doesn’t have some redeeming qualities, I’m not willing to invest my time to follow her on her journey.

Who are your favorite authors in this genre?
I like Liane Moriarty (What Alice Forgot), Elizabeth Berg (The Art of Mending), Ellen Giffin (Babyproof), Anna Quindlen (Blessings), Susan Wiggs (Just Breathe) and Claire Cook (Must Love Dogs). I also love a good suspense novel written by Harlan Coben or Alafair Burke.

Do you outline a novel?
I spend a lot of time mulling things over in my mind. I try to create a character to whom I can relate and a problem which will challenge her. Usually I jot down ideas of what I want to have happen at some point in the novel, but it’s not that organized. I do try to keep roadblocks coming and increasing in intensity for my characters. I get bored if I’m reading a book that goes on for pages about what the scenery looks like. I want action!

How do you do your research?
The truth is, my real life is rather tame, so I’m forced to do research. I like to interview people and read about unfamiliar topics. For example, in my Secrets series, Bethany’s boyfriend, Parker, seems to be everything a woman could want: smart, kind and handsome. He also has Huntington’s disease. For me, this created dilemmas about whether he should get married and have kids. I did a lot of research on-line and I have a friend whose father had Huntington’s disease. She was gracious enough to share her experiences with me so that my book could ring true.

Any clues for someone who wants to try to write women’s fiction?
I aim for characters that feel real—like your neighbor or a good friend. I then give her some flaws and make her desperately want something that she can’t have. I write “Happy Endings with a Twist” because readers appreciate surprise endings.

Are you writing another 3 book series?
For some reason, I keep writing trilogies. I didn’t plan to, but my friends wanted to find out what happened next to everyone they’d fallen in love with in “A Sister’s Promise.” So, I wrote “What Happiness Looks Like.” When I wrote “On the Verge” which is about a newlywed who hits his head and his personality drastically changes, I invented new main characters, but my old favorites slipped back in there. I do think I’ll keep writing series because I’m not ready to walk away from my characters after just one book. Now I’m working on a brand new series. For me, this is the hardest stage. . .creating book 1.

Who are some of your favorite female characters in novels?
I’m not good at remembering names, but I like smart, witty and capable women like in Jennifer Weiner’s and Claire Cook’s novels. I just read a novel where the main character was a police officer, struggling with diabetes, when her mother got kidnapped. I loved that she had such a powerful job despite her medical condition.

Care to tell us about your new release?
In “A Mother’s Conviction” a doting foster mother competes against a less-than-stellar birth mother to win a little girl’s heart. Here’s the blurb: Single mom Bethany Morris loves her 6-year-old foster daughter, Willow, as if she were her own. When Willow’s real mother is released early from prison, Bethany isn’t ready to let the little girl go. She wonders if people really can change and tries to justify her reluctance to say good-bye by digging into the mother’s shady past.

Across the state line, Willow’s half-sister lives with her dad, Conner Walker, a man who never stays in one place for too long. When he returns to the town where he grew up, he realizes he’s been cheating his daughter out of a place to call home. For the first time in years, he wonders if he should keep running or risk making a stand in court.

To what lengths will Bethany and Conner go to keep their families together? Read “A Mother’s Conviction” to find out!

Thanks, Judy, for inviting me to stop by.

And thank you, Karen, for sharing with us!!

facebook.com/karen.lenfestey.3 Twitter: @KarenLenfestey I’m also on GoodReads

You might want to check out Karen’s new release, “A Mother’s Conviction,” available both in e-book and paperback at Amazon at this link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00YQOPWQS

Genre Fine Tuning

Someone recently asked me, “What are the variations of genres?”  We were talking fiction.  Still, I had to stop to think.  I could list the basics:  romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, and sci/fi.  Book stores separate those out for you.  I had to think harder to come up with children’s, erotica, historical fiction, literary fiction, young adult, women’s fiction, and westerns.  But these terms are so broad, there are lots of smaller, specialty niches within each.  I don’t pretend to know what all of these niches are.  I usually wander up and down shelves to find them, but book covers give you a clue.    Cozy novels have cozy covers.  Noir tends to go dark.  But there are finer intricacies to look for.  You’d have to study particular markets to get those right.  But it’s worth making the effort to know what the subgenres are in your favorite.

Certain expectations go along with each genre.  Readers expect particular ingredients to be in each mix.  If you write a romance, you have to deliver a boy meets girl, things get bumpy, boy almost loses girl, and then boy wins girl type of plot.  Harlequin does a great job at this, and it’s no easy thing.    I went to a workshop with Shirley Jump, and she creates character wheels for her heroes and heroines so that their needs and wants bump against each other in the storyline, increasing tension, before attraction finally pulls them together.  But Harlequins are only one type of romance.  There are plenty more.

If you promise a paranormal romance, you’d be wise to have something paranormal in your story, along with one heck of a romance plot.  I read Katie MacAlister’s Zen and the Art of Vampires, and she mixed a regular, mortal heroine (a little on the overweight side) with a hot, sexy vampire, and tossed in a dash of humor.   Readers get exactly what they’re looking for–a taste of the unordinary in our ordinary world, mixed with a steamy love/hate relationship that veers toward disaster before romance conquers all.

A friend of mine is working on a historical, Christian romance, so I read A Hope Undaunted, by Julie Lessman–one of her favorite authors–to see what the ingredients are for that type of novel.  Set at the end of the 1920’s, the book captures the flavor and feel of the era.  The heroine wants to be liberated and to have an important career, but then the Depression wipes out her hopes for an expensive education, and she meets a lawyer who cares little for money, but is determined to rescue as many street orphans as he can.  Faith plays a big part in each of the character’s lives.   The time period influences culture and attitudes.  Both elements are necessary for this type of novel.

I could  go on, but suffice it to say that there are many different types of romance–contemporary, Western, Gothic, Regency, historical, the old “bodice rippers,” etc.   The thing is, there are plenty of subgenres for every genre, and for readers to find what they like in a book, that’s a good thing.

I love Georgette Heyer.   I love Touch Not the Cat, by Mary Stewart.   But their moods and tones aren’t the same.  When I want to read a Regency, I want dukes and ladies, not Gothic atmosphere.  That’s where knowing what type of novel you like and where to find it helps.  That’s the purpose of genres and subgenres.  I might grump about them sometimes and long for more crossover books, but the truth is, genres serve a purpose.  And when I pick up a book and think it’s one thing…but it’s not…I’m not happy.  Along with good writing, I want books to deliver the elements I’m in the mood for.