Please welcome the wonderful Maggie Barbieri; the third book in her Belfast McGrath series (written as Maggie McConnon) will be out in December!
I recently had a spirited discussion with the members of my book club – a group consisting of six men and two women – about the idea of characterization over plot. You know what I’m talking about: How much character development is necessary and how much thrill-ride plot do you need to hook a reader and make them never want to put your book down?
It will come as no surprise, if you’ve ever read one of my books, that I’m big on characters and hopefully, character development. (I’ll let you be the judge of that.) I love getting in the mind of someone completely foreign to me, someone I don’t know – in one case, a divorced college professor, and in another, a middle-aged, African American male detective – and figuring out what makes them tick. I have written about an older man with dementia and teenagers with secrets. Every time I approach the blank page, though, I start with something that I do know – a vulnerability, an insecurity, a piece of a backstory – and go from there, penciling in the outline and then adding shades of their “truth.”
Years ago, I tried to read a book that was, from the first page, a rollercoaster ride, the characters finding themselves in every imaginable predicament one could find oneself in. But at the end of the book, I found myself asking: Who were they, really? And what motivated them beyond the solving of the actual mystery? What propelled them forward? I would never know because the author’s style, his “voice,” focused on the chase and that was enough for that book. It worked for him and for the readers who read and enjoyed it and while I’ve tried to do that in my writing, it never seems to pan out for me. I start with the characters and the mystery presents itself.
So, I guess this post is more about what motivates a writer as well as what engages a reader. Writers, like readers, are all different and the way they approach the page as different as the expectations of someone who opens a book, not sure what they will find. I know when I’ve hit the “sweet spot” in my writing – when I am at the computer and the words are flowing, the characters are developing, and the talking in my head begins. What will this person say? And how will this other person react? It’s from there that my story develops and the mystery takes shape. Because it’s never the person I think is going to be the culprit going in and it’s always someone I hadn’t really thought about. But something about that person – their characterization – leaps out at me at some point and lets me know that there is something about them that makes them the perfect foil or the perfect villain. They creep out of the background and into the forefront of the story, the one things that propels them finally taking shape.
If you’re a writer, how do you do it? And if you’re a reader, what do you like? Characters…plot…a little bit of both? At book club, we were evenly split across members and gender but just like our menu varies from club to club – even though there’s always wine! – so do our tastes and preferences as readers and writers.
Maggie Barbieri is the author of thirteen novels; her latest, Bel, Book and Scandal, written as Maggie McConnon, will publish in December 2017 from St. Martin’s Press. She is the author of The Murder 101 Mysteries and the Maeve Conlon series. She lives in the Hudson Valley of New York State with her husband.