For My Fiction Writing Followers: Which Came First - the Plot or the Characters? And Who Really Owns Your Book?
How do your stories arrive? I read somewhere that Iain Banks fastidiously plans his plots and the characters just have to fit in as best they can.
Initially, I was shocked by this approach. Surely the characters are the most important part of the story. The reader is carried through a work of fiction by a character or characters. They see the world through their eyes. I took a step back. Maybe he has a point. We don't map out our own lives. Events occur and we make the best of them - we try to set sail in a particular direction but the wind can change. If the plot is planned out first then your characters are thrown into the thick of it and their personalities will be shown by their responses to events - just like real life.
Hmmm. Maybe I'm not sure about the plot-driven approach. Interesting but too convenient. Bit too author-centric. Too much temptation to take control of the book myself and show no respect for my characters.
For me, my characters arrive first. The main character turns up with a small suitcase of ideas and hopes for the plot. I sketch them out tentatively and without too much detail then I put my time and effort into the characters. Where do they want the story to go? How will they screw things up for each other/help each other out? By 'the tricky middle bit' my own ideas for the novel are dispensed with and I ask my characters how to progress. By then they are writing the novel, not me. This isn't as insane as it sounds and it's good practice for the scary thing that will happen once the novels are published.
Your place as Dictator-In-Chief over your fictional world is astonishingly short-lived. If you want to be a good author, you need to care enough about your work to stop thinking of yourself as the author.
Stop Being the Author
Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to sneak myself some lessons with a number of Oxford Dons (English Professors) in the wonderful environs of some of Oxford University's fine colleges. It's a long story but, basically, I had a really bad car accident as a child that left me largely self-educated and when the compensation came through in my teenage years, I spent it on the best education I could afford to fill in the gaps. Nerdy huh?
The book-larning I had cobbled together to that point had convinced me of the vital place of the author in literature. It made sense. Without an author the book would not exist. However, during these rather intense one-to-ones with fabulously brained academics, I discovered that this is not the only view. I was furious to hear that the author doesn't matter much at all. I was only slightly worn in by the idea that art happens in a space between the piece and the viewer. It seemed logical so I let it go.
Finally, I was forced to do battle with an uncomfortable idea: once a piece of literature is 'out there,' it's anybody's. Did I kick against that idea? YES!! I phoned my cleverest friends and put my case for the importance of the author and they were quite sniffy about it. Academic types would have none of it. After much thought I decided that they may be right. Being published is a scary thing. Once the world has seen your work, it is no longer yours.
So Whose Book is it?
Tricky. My best guess is that it is the readers' - or maybe the reader's. It belongs to the readers as a whole but it belongs, more specifically to each individual reader. Why? Well, a good book - depending on whether it's literary or commercial - reflects society or changes it. In fact, I think the terms 'literary' and 'commercial' are troublesome.
The work of Dickens may have inspired changes in the way that certain people in society viewed and treated those afflicted by poverty. Blake may even have inspired certain people to re-evaluate their viewpoint on charity. That said, 'Friends' re-landscaped the urban scenery even in England. Cafes disappeared. Coffee slowly replaced tea as the national beverage. Thousands of people found work in Starbucks and its ilk. Inspired by the idea of 'making your own family' from your friends, people sought to develop new family structures. 'Loft apartments' became trendy; etc, etc. These are big social changes and they happened over a short period of time because a group of writers sat round a table a scribbled some stories about a group of twenty-somethings in New York. Don't even get me started on Sex and the City.
But I Want to Own It!
Copyright and autobiographies aside, if you want to own your work, don't publish it. When you read a book, you do so through your own frame of reference. This character is 'so me' because this thing she did was so much like the thing I did when... etc.
No two people will have the same reading of a novel. The experience of a novel, or any form of fiction, occurs between the words the author types and the world the reader creates. In making the step from amateur writer to professional author, maybe the most important lesson is to understand that in giving your work to the world, you will be losing it. Of course, you can reclaim it at any time. Pick it up and read it. Become the reader and the book will be yours.