I had an interesting question the other day. Patrick Scaffido observed that all the reviews for my new novel The Black discuss characters in generalities rather than specifics. If you read the blurb for all my other works, the main characters jump out at you in the descriptions. But why not for The Black?
Let me back up a bit. I am best known for my psychological horror/thriller stories like Tattoo and Closet Treats. But I’m also known for writing extremely dark historical fantasy. Regardless of genre, though, characters have always been the main study of the story. I like to bring interesting people to life and then do terrible things to them to see how they survive.
The Black is another of those tales, but instead of telling the story through the eyes of three or four characters, I chose to try something different. One of my favorite books, Relic, has four main characters but it drags in viewpoints from minor characters as well. Hell, some of them aren’t even minor–they’re nano.
I chose to change my story-telling style for two reasons. The first? Because I hadn’t done it before. I believe writing requires you to challenge yourself. Every story needs to be better (and different) than the last. I strive to incorporate lessons I’ve learned into any new endeavors. That means stretching. I had to stretch quite a bit when I co-authored The Rider with Scott Sigler. That was a first too–my science-fiction novel. It was a terrifying and yet very rewarding experience. When it’s published later this year, I hope readers agree that it’s a good tale.
The second reason is a bit more pedestrian. Many thrillers use the style found in Relic and Stephen King’s Needful Things. A lot of characters inhabit those novels, but we only get slices of their lives. Usually right before those lives end. The characters we come to love are the main ones, but without the rest of the ensemble, the tale just wouldn’t be as complete or fun.
When you write a book in this manner, especially when there are four main characters just as important as one another, it makes it difficult to focus on just one. Therefore, reviews and blurbs are either going to mention them all, or simply acknowledge them as an ensemble.
I’m presently working on the sidequel (paraquel?) to The Black and I’m following the same, dare I say, formula of ensemble. I loved all the characters in the last book, and I’m really digging these poor saps I’m bringing to life at the moment. I can’t wait to tilt their world on its edge and see which of them actually manage to survive it. Yes, it’s a sadistic pleasure.
Notice what I haven’t yet said in this missive? I haven’t mentioned the word “plot” once. That’s because the characters make the plot. Pure and simple. I know what’s going to happen, but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. The characters help me figure that out. Their personalities, traits, and skills drive the story and conflicts. The plot grows out of their interaction with the world I’ve created.
Sometimes characters grow organically even after you’ve given them a ton of skills. Their personalities live in how they speak, think, and observe. The ensemble brings more opportunities to create beings that may exist for only a page or two before disappearing into the aether. They are little swatches of color in the much larger story tapestry. And they are damned fun to write.
So don’t be surprised if I write a few books like this. Stories like those contained in the Garaaga’s Children universe are quite different. In some ways, they only function if the narrator is trapped in the mind of a single character. My Fiends tales have been much the same way. But they don’t have to be.
I’m writing these stories the way they need to be written. I don’t overthink these matters while writing, although I do tend to analyze my work when I’ve finished it. Sometimes I’ll come up for air after a writing sprint and ask “what the hell am I doing? And why?” The answer is always “I have no idea, but I like it.”
The reviews for The Black keep coming and all I’ve heard thus far is praise. I must have done something right. This is the best-selling novel I’ve ever written. Maybe I’ve finally found the proper balance between character study and that ephemeral beast known as “plot.” Regardless, I have more stories to write. I’ll save the philosophical mea-culpas for after they’ve been published.
Written by Paul E. Cooley.
Find Paul E. Cooley’s website at Shadowpublications.com
Find his latest book The Black here and at Amazon.com.
I personally recommend his book Closet Treats for mindwarping character driven horror.