21% Monster Blog Tour

This thrilling adventure is just the right book to catapult readers into an exciting character driven plot and leave them wanting more! Author, P.J. Canning has written some top tips to share with us about writing!

Be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour!

Top tips for writing a character driven plot

I’m sure you’ve noticed that life doesn’t come with a handy map to help you navigate each day. Life is not preordained. All it takes is an unexpected event, perhaps a broken downbus or bumping into an old friend, and your day takes a different turn. Once it has, how the day pans out is heavily influenced by character, both yours and the people around you.

It is only my opinion, but I think this presents a particular problem for an adventure writer. It is possible to write a fiendishly clever plot and yet discover that readers put the book down after thirty pages. Perhaps they were even enjoying it, but somehow they find they just don’t care. I’ve come to realise that the reason this happens is that adventures are often mapped out like a series of events a character moves through without agency. This lacks authenticity because those events should be driven by the character’s decisions. If not, it just doesn’t feel authentic and so the reader doesn’t care.

So, for an adventure to work, character must be high in the mix. For me, I find it has to go further – character must drive the plot. Writing an adventure without knowing where the plot is going because characters are making their own decisions scene by scene might seem daunting. It was for me. So, here are a few things I’ve learnt from a quarter of a century of writing. Who knows, they might work for you:

Before you begin

1. Get to know your characters

Just because you are not going to plan ahead doesn’t mean you can’t prepare. Knowing your characters well is a necessity if you are going to let them make decisions for you. Generally, major characters in my stories have been rumbling around my head for several years before they hit the page, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Occasionally, one pops up fully formed. You can also consciously construct a character, but only write the story once you have a feel for them.

Personally, I find it easiest to consider two characters in depth. Just like a sitcom or romcom, if they are very different in nature then the natural friction between them is both engaging for the reader and creates the energy to make their decisions interesting. Relationships are easier to characterise than individuals. In 21% Monster, the fractious relationship between the main characters, Darren and Marek, drove the plot at a hectic pace.

When you begin

2. Choose the right catalyst

It is much the easiest option to write an adventure chronologically, but I’d encourage you not to begin at the beginning. Instead, start at the event which is the catalyst for the adventure. The thing that brings the main characters together and sets them on an interesting path. The catalyst is what ultimately causes the book to be an adventure story. It provides the impetus for the main characters to bond or develop animosity. Getting the catalyst right is the key to generating energy and the right relationship conditions. For example, in 21% Monster, the event had to be extreme enough to overcome Darren’s natural caution. Thanks to Marek, he has no choice but to get involved. Therefore, the catalyst reflected what his character needed – Through no choice of his own, he ends up on the run.

Once you have the first draft done, you can see what shape it has and what beginning it needs to set up that critical moment. 

Once you’re on your way

3. Remember parallel decision-making

One fatal error in an adventure story is if your off-page characters are doing nothing except waiting for their scene. In real life, the baddies have motivations and emotional complexities also. You need to understand these, so that they can be reacting off page to whatever your heroes are up to. To make this easier, in 21% Monster I wrote part of the book from the point of view of Miss Inghart who is trying to catch the heroes. She had worries and pressures of her own to deal with. She makes good decisions and mistakes. It all makes the plot more real and more believable and can bring surprises. Villains with depth are also tremendous fun to write.

4. Its OK to predict, but don’t overrule your characters – EVER

As you go, you’ll inevitably start to get a sense of where the book is going. You’ll start to imagine set piece scenes of big moments. Perhaps even the end will form in your mind. This absolutely fine. It is exactly the same as imagining how a job interview might go. Letting your brain predict helps you prepare. However, just as in normal life, actually writing a scene might go a different way from what you expect. If you allow the characters to lead you, this can take the plot in a direction you hadn’t anticipated and in doing so prevent some of those scenes or that ending you imagined from happening. So, what do you do?

Bitter experience has taught me that you must NEVER overrule your characters. If you do, the reader will sense the lack of authenticity. This drags them out of the book and they start analysing why you chose to make something unrealistic happen. Chances are, they soon stop reading. In addition, those unforeseen moments, to the reader, seem like clever twists. They get why the character did it, but are surprised they didn’t see it coming. It draws them in further and they’ll love the book for that.

I hope you find these tips useful and, if you’re still unsure, perhaps this will persuade you. Can you remember a time something out of the ordinary happened to someone you know really well? As they began to tell you the story, did you think ‘Oh, I bet I know how they reacted!’

If the answer is yes, you’ve already attempted a character driven story. So, why not try writing one down

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