When I read many of the self-published novels that proliferate today’s literary landscape, one glaring flaw that jumps out at me is the lack of character development. Many newbie authors spend much of their time on the plot not realizing that plot should always be secondary to character. Plot, to me, is like a car, while character is the driver. You need the driver to get the car where you want it to go--where you want to go. It’s the driver’s choices that make the trip pleasurable or harrowing. The car is just the vehicle.
I noted for a fantasy writer recently that in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, it isn’t elves, and orcs and ring wraiths that make the story so engaging—it’s Frodo’s moral dilemma, or what I call his moral conundrum that propels the story forward. When Frodo comes to realize the responsibility he’s been entrusted with the ring, he doesn’t want it. It’s the weight of this and how he handles this and other responsibilities that really moves the story along. It’s not the plot, but the characters choices that makes The Lord of The Rings so engaging.
In Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack Torrance surmises his family (wife, Wendy and son, Danny) are the reason he’s in the position he’s in—a broke, struggling, alcoholic writer. Taking the job at the Overlook is Jack’s desire to fix his life, but his secret belief that his family is the reason for his woes (his conundrum) eats at him until it finally brings him down. Yes, Danny’s ability to see ghosts who might harm him scares the hell out of us, but it’s his father’s moral conundrum that propels the story along.
If you’re a newbie writer, or even a seasoned vet who may have forgotten, characters and their choices are the key to creating engaging work. It’s great having a Ferrari (plot) but without a good driver (character) it’s just another car.