This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
Many people have said it, but you can never hear it too often: the way to write a book that readers will find irresistible is to answer the basic questions of who, what, why, and why not. In short: character, goal, motivation, and conflict.
Who are these people, anyway?
Let’s start with character. The main difference between writing commercial fiction and writing literary fiction is that readers expect action from commercial fiction. They expect the characters to do things. Lots of things. Often. Their bodies must be in motion. In literary fiction, the expectations are different. In literary fiction, the bodies can cogitate, and they can cogitate in elegant prose for multiple pages, across space and time until hearts beat as one. In commercial fiction, not so much.
The actions that your characters take is usually called plot, and writers have lots of mechanical ways to figure plot out. You can use charts and graphs, sticky notes, white boards with dry erase, software programs, and even breadcrumbs. Plotting isn’t easy, as any reader who has thrown a book across the room will tell you.
Know character to build plot
Wrestling your plot into shape is helped in direct proportion by how well you know your characters. The better you know them, the more likely you are to know what they’ll do next—and after that—and after that. And when your protagonist and antagonist have conflicting goals (which they most certainly do, right?) the fact that you know what each person will do—well, I won’t say that the book plots itself, but it sure helps.
Who is your book about? Know everyone—even your minor characters, even the unnamed walk-ons—in more detail than you’ll ever put on the page. Know them better than you know your mother, your spouse, or your baby sister.
Use any means to gain that knowledge. Some writers fill out questionnaires with specific questions about family, schools, backgrounds, and hobbies. Some writers develop character sketches or biographies. Some writers assume the role of the character and ask a critique partner to interview that character, asking both detailed questions (what’s your favorite birthday meal?) and philosophical assumptions (what’s your greatest joy?). Tape your answers. Absorb the details.
An inevitable outcome
Of course, you also need to know your characters’ goals and motivations (more on that later). But first, know who you’re dealing with. When you understand who these people are and what drives them, then their decisions—and their actions—will be not just natural, but inevitable.