I consider myself a plot-driven writer. Nothing gets me more jazzed than a twisted murder committed by a shadowy villain. That’s no doubt a good thing for a suspense author. After all, plot is what we hear about most often when readers talk about great thrillers—books that grab them from page one and won’t let them go: this happened and this happened, and it was all so fast and furious.
I can come up with sensational, action-packed stories. So that should make my books brilliant. And so easy to write. Yay, me, right? Except that plot—even brilliant plot—is only half of the equation.
What your reader still needs
Creating a memorable story requires a memorable protagonist. She need not be particularly likable or strong or smart… or particularly anything, but the reader must be able to identify with her. And most importantly, the protagonist must fit the story.
Think about it. Plot isn’t what makes us fall in love with stories. What engages us as readers is the journey, riding alongside the protagonist. When absolutely engrossed in the story, we become the protagonist. We bond with them. Seem weird? It’s true.
Even stranger, the bond we form with the characters in a book isn’t just in our minds; it actually circulates through our entire bodies.
The science of fiction
Science has proven that stories alter our neurochemistry. When fictional characters interact, our bodies release oxytocin, a neuropeptide first found in nursing mothers that turns up whenever humans feel close to each other. When you read a good story, your body creates a bonding transmitter.
Alone no more
It doesn’t matter if you’re home by yourself in the den with a book. The act of reading makes us step into the place of the character—most often the narrator—and we actually experience that other reality. When characters encounter stress or conflict, we release cortisol, a chemical related to stress response. A happy ending in the story makes our bodies release dopamine. We feel what the characters feel.
What does this have to do with plot?
When we are under the spell of a gripping story, we change with the character. Her perspective becomes the way we see the world, too. To make that possible, the reader has to understand the motivation for what a character does—her choices. Only in understanding the protagonist do her actions have meaning. This understanding is what makes us care. The way our bodies react to a Harry Potter book, for instance, stems from knowing Harry’s plight—the death of his parents, the attack that left him scarred, and all that is still at risk for him while, internally, he yearns for family and home.
Character is key
The character is the reader’s guide, the person we accompany in a whirlwind plot. And we won’t join if the character doesn’t fully engage us. Because we don’t bond. Despite all the hoopla about a brilliant plot, story happens internally, not externally. We don’t come to a story simply to watch events unfold.
We come to experience that story through its characters.
You may come up with a hugely brilliant plot. But for it to succeed, you must find the right character to guide your reader, a character who makes your plot come alive, whose quandaries and challenges grip the reader and won’t let go.
Pick your character carefully.