Monday, July 16, 2012

Characters and Plot Development: A Few Insights from Author Sarah Gruen

I just finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I will warn you that there were a few sketchy parts in the beginning- it's written from the point of view of a 21-year-old male, so he has some thoughts I'd rather not know about. I kept reading with one eye open, so to speak, prepared to abandon ship if necessary, but once the story picked up, the trash blew away and it was a pretty good read.

Anyway, I found the story riveting and I really liked the way the author developed the plot and the characters. I was thrilled to find a "Conversation With the Author" section at the end, and I thought I'd share a few tidbits from that that made me think.

I like to write flawed characters. I take a warts-and-all approach to everyone. People, for some reason, are more forgiving of my older warty characters, but my thirty- and forty-year-old characters are just as warty if you look at them closely. Annemarie, in the Riding Lessons series, certainly- it's my intention that people will feel like throttling her on occasion.

Once I thought back over the book, I realized she was right. There were several characters that really turned me off when I first "met" them, but eventually many of them earned my admiration. But that didn't mean I didn't want to still smack them every now and then. This made me think of my own WIP and ask myself, How 'warty' are my characters? Are their flaws easily visible? Does my reader want to give them a good throttling sometimes? To love 'em, you gotta hate 'em a little bit too.

Q: How do you approach plot? Do you outline and work out the shape of the story in detail before you write, or do you leave that until revision afterward?

A: For Water for Elephants, which was the first historical thing I've written, I did all the research ahead of time. I needed to feel that I knew the subject matter in and out. 
I hate outlining. I hate outlines, hate them, hate them.
I usually know what the crisis of the book is going to be, though I don't know how I'm going to get there. I try to make it bad enough that I don't know how I'm going to get out of it. And when I get there, I have to get out of it. I just get myself geared up, and I write every day and see what happens. 

I love the fact that she knows the crisis without knowing how she'll get out of it- I find that a very organic approach to writing, because really she's taking the story from the point of view of the character- they don't know how they'll get out of it either! I think that probably makes the resolution process much more natural and believable.

 I found that to be true in this book, and I realized after reading it that there were often so many loose ends and so many ways they could be tied up- either for the character's benefit or detriment- that I was compelled to continue reading and find out what the final outcome would be. And really, isn't that what makes a great plot?

Now that I've finished the book I'm intrigued to see the movie. I'm definitely glad I read this book first, though, because it is infused with layers that I'm sure weren't able to be captured in a 2-hour film. However, I feel it was definitely conducive to film adaptation because there is a strong main storyline that is very "Hollywood".

Hope you enjoyed this little peek into the mind of an author- have you read anything good lately that has taught you more about "the craft"?

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