Last time, I began a discussion on how to mold an idea into a workable novel. I talked about where the inspiration for these stories can come from. Using my vampire science fiction novel, 14 Days ‘Til Dawn, as a backdrop, I showed how asking yourself the right questions can lead to a deep, rich world for you to write about. I also covered a few areas showing how to avoid certain pitfalls that can spell certain doom for the success of your work. Fair warning: as with the last post, this one contains spoilers, if you haven’t read 14 Days.
Today, I shall dig a little deeper into the genesis of a novel. I’ll discuss how to take that inspiration and use it to create interesting, three dimensional characters, as well as some of the other necessary aspects of a novel, one of the most important of those being conflict.
First, let’s look at the creation of your characters. I’ve always found the creation of the antagonist to be a relatively easy task. In the genres I write, including science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers, you want your bad guy to be just that: bad–as evil as you can make him, and still have him believable. And with the real world so full of truly evil people, that leaves a lot of room to work with.
The antagonist is not even necessarily the leader of the characters arrayed against your protagonist. For 14 Days, the main antagonist was a vampire named Olamor, who held the rank of Eliminator. A high rank, certainly, but he was not the man in charge. I made him cruel and heartless, yet very calm and unflappable in front of others. Although he might lose his temper when alone, he tended to remain in control otherwise. It was that icy calm that made his evil moments that much stronger. When he hurt someone, it was a deliberate, calculated action, not a fit of rage. And that said a lot about him.
The interesting thing about my protagonist was that I actually had two of them. Beren, a man who had served in the military years before, originally was designed only as a means of demonstrating Olamor’s cruelty. He was supposed to be captured, tortured, and eventually executed. But as the story went along, I had a change of heart. I went back and made Beren more of a transitional character. In the beginning, all he wants is to be left alone. When his wife dies, he’s ready to die, as well, but by the end he takes a leading role in the fighting.
Once the decision was made to keep him around, it was important that I revise his character all the way back to the beginning, once my purpose for him changed. Otherwise, he would have seemed very two-dimensional. It’s important for our protagonists to be sympathetic characters, so they need some depth. You have to give the reader a reason to connect.
From the original moment of inspiration for 14 Days, Calibra was to be my main POV character and my protagonist. She had to move over a bit once Beren came onboard, but that didn’t mean she had to change at all. She was a doctor, so she had made a career of helping people. That made it more believable when the reader learned that she was also secretly helping people escape from the vampires. I made Calibra out to be a typical trusting, caring person, someone who was always willing to lend a hand. The trusting feature was important, as she was to be betrayed by someone close to her. This helped to set up some of the main conflict in the novel.
I designed Sarus, a friend of Calibra, to be the mechanism of betrayal. He was a little more difficult to flesh out, because he was a complicated man. In the beginning, he appeared to be an excellent fighter and strategist who helped Calibra in her clandestine efforts. But he was actually a spy in the employ of Eliminator Olamor. The duality of his nature made it more difficult to create his personality because part of it was all an act. In reality, he was a dispassionate man who looked at everything as a job, rather than through the prism of right and wrong. But I also had to have that secondary personality, the face he showed Calibra to keep in her good graces.
As I said, designing the antagonist is usually easier than the protagonist. The bad guy’s motivations are usually quite simple: kill the good guy, take over the world, destroy the opposition. That’s an oversimplification, of course, because a good antagonist still needs a personality. But it’s much easier to show banal cruelty than the nuances of just what a protagonist will do (or sacrifice) to achieve a goal.
No matter how detailed a world you’ve created, and regardless of how deep the characters are, your inspiration will be wasted if you don’t have strong conflict. You need tension, something that compels the reader to keep going for “just one more chapter.” You want it to be as difficult for the reader to stop at just one more chapter as it is for the guy at a bar to stop at “just one more beer.” The more conflict you have, the better. The more levels of conflict you have, the stronger your novel will be.
In the case of 14 Days, there is one obvious conflict that serves as the backdrop for the entire story: the vampires are the ruling class, and a resistance group is trying to overthrow them. But you need more than a macro conflict. You need micro conflict at the personal level for as many of the main characters as you can manage. For Beren, events continued to lead him in directions he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to fight, but had to. Once his wife died, he didn’t even want to live. He eventually came to embrace the events that had been forced upon him.
For Calibra, her primary conflict was her secret struggle against the vampires. But once Sarus betrayed her, she fought a battle within herself–for the rest of the novel–on how to trust him again.
Sarus, on the other hand, remained aloof and above the struggle, right up until the time he betrayed Calibra. From then on, he fought a battle within himself. Should he stay with Eliminator Olamor’s vampire forces? Or should he turn traitor and help Calibra and the resistance forces? I was careful to have him switch back and forth a few times to keep the reader guessing. Would he remain on the side of the vampires, which would likely mean death at the end if the protagonist won. Or would he risk everything and end up on the side of the resistance fighters?
Two of the keys to making the most of your inspiration are depth–in everything, including characters and conflict–and patience, patience to wait until you have everything right before beginning the novel; patience to do a complete rewrite if it becomes necessary to keep everything in balance; and patience to keep working on the novel until you’re certain you’ve made it the best it can be.