RELATIONSHIPS: FICTION VS. REAL LIFE

by | Feb 25, 2021 | Chris Goff, On writing | 4 comments

The Big Reveal

In July, I will have the distinct pleasure of discussing this topic with fellow Rogue Carla Neggers in our X-Treme CrafFest session entitled “Character Relationships,” airing during Virtual ThrillerFest XVI, June 28-July 10, 2021. Attendees can tune into over 100 conversations featuring over 200 industry professionals, all discussing specific aspects of the writing craft: setting, dialogue, conflict, opening sentences, etc.

So what do Carla and I know about Character Relationships?

A lot! I am the author of eight books—six in a Birdwatcher’s Mystery series and two international thrillers. I’ve been nominated for a lot of awards, won a few and honed my craft for nearly 30 years.

Okay, I admit, I have ten years’ worth of learning curve sitting in boxes in my basement. At least four novel attempts and a slew of short story attempts. But who doesn’t?

Carla, maybe!

She is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 75 novels, including her acclaimed Sharpe & Donovan suspense series. Her books have been translated into two dozen languages and sold in over 35 countries.

I’m in awe.

But I digress.

In the world of crime fiction, there is an ongoing debate about what’s most important– character or plot. As a beginning writer, I would have said plot. After all, it’s the pulse-pounding ride that makes a thriller so exciting, right? It’s all about the chase to the end to see justice triumph. But, as a seasoned writer, I’ve changed my mind. After eight books, I’ve come to the realization…

It’s character that drives the story.

After all, justice looks differently to different people. How justice looks depends on whether you’re the protagonist or the antagonist, the wife or the other woman, the boss or the employee.

It took me years to complete my debut thriller, DARK WATERS. The idea came to me in 1999. I was in Israel for eight weeks with my daughter. She was eleven and there receiving medical treatment. I was the parent on the ground. I had just turned in my first book in the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, and was under contract for four more in the series. I knew I should be working on Book #2. Instead, I spent the eight weeks focusing on my daughter and taking notes. Lots of notes. The more I watched, the more I was struck by the by the complexity of Israeli society. There were lots of Jews, who believed different things. Some weren’t religious, some were. Some were orthodox, some were ultra-orthodox. There were Israeli Arabs, separated by a border wall from their Palestinian relatives. I was enthralled with how many similarities there were to things happening at the borders in the US.

It was right at the time when suicide bombings were gearing up, and the fear and anger was palpable.

Later, when I worked on the book, it was the characters in my book that made the story work. It was their differences, offset by their similarities and their common goals, which drove the plot and made the story come alive.

The good the bad and the ugly.

It is incredible how nuanced relationships are. You can love someone and still not like them. You can be in awe of someone’s accomplishments, but despise them as a human being. You can try with every fiber of your being to make someone understand, and still not be able to make them comprehend.

And that’s what makes it interesting!

Like in real life, it’s the push and pull between characters that captivates the readers. Who is smarter, the villain or the protagonist? Does the person your character loves unconditionally, place conditions on their relationship? Do the characters have different belief systems and yet want the same outcome? For the same or for different reasons?

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about what I want to say in our session, and what I want to ask Carla. I know there’s a lot I can learn from her. And for the past week, I’ve been taking notes again, and begun tweaking Operation Gentoo. One thing I know for certain, the stronger my characters, the better the book.

If you could share one truth about relationships or character, one
thing you’ve learned over the years, what would it be?

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4 Comments

  1. Rogue Women Writers

    I'm looking forward to this discussion of character with Rogues Chris Goff and Carla Neggers at the virtual Thrillerfest this summer. I've read terrific books by both of them and recommend them highly. As to the final question, what have I learned about "character"? – I'm reminded of the award winning comedy, "It's Complicated" starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin – can you imagine more distinct character types? I believe the most realistic portrayals recognize that no character is ever "all good" or "all bad" — and Chris and Carla do a great job "showing" exactly that. Great blog – thanks…..Karna Small Bodman

  2. Gayle Lynds

    I so agree, Chris … plot must arise from character, and if it doesn't, then it has to appear to originate with the characters, particularly the villain. I can't wait to watch you panel with Carla … and am I right that Operation Gentoo is your new thriller????

  3. Carla Neggers

    I love these thoughts, Chris, and even virtual, Thrillerfest will be great. Thank you for the kind words. I started writing climbing a tree with a pad and pen as a kid and stayed at it. The "push and pull" you describe is such a clear, helpful way to think about character relationships.

  4. Lisa Black

    I’ve always felt that writing characters is my weak point. I’ll plot all day long, but thinking about actual human beings gives me hives. It was just luck that made me hit on the complicated, sort of ‘frenemy’ relationship of Maggie and Jack, which is certainly what’s made them my most popular characters so far.