The Tail or the Dog
The relationship between characters and plot in any novel is pivotal and tricky. A story is often plot driven but what I remember most when I finish a satisfying read are the characters. Of course, good plots make characters memorable—how they get in and out of jams, express or repress their emotions, and make sacrifices—but down deep I just like who they are above and beyond what they do. They may start out as the “tail” but they end up as the “dog".
My own characters sometimes become friends. At least conversationally. “Hey ———— — should I return my latest, ridiculous Amazon purchase?” Or, “What wine should I bring to this dinner party because my expertise is wine labels?" If they’re going to be my friends, this begs the question about what kind of characters do I like to draw from in real life. Someone different from me, as much as possible, and who strikes me as interesting in conflicted ways. Someone challenged by the limits of both their strengths and their weaknesses. In the end, I hope they are sympathetic to most readers.
Even unsympathetic characters require a lot of attention and exploration before they go on the written page. Minor characters, too, require serious thought because their place in the narrative can enhance or diminish the total effect. Every blemish—and all novels have them, if a reader looks closely enough—shows.
In Ghost With Two Hearts, there are two main characters, and I like both, but creating one, a computer coder, was easier than fabricating the other—a ghost serving an eternity in Shinto Hell. Making a realistic (at least plausible) ghost, about whom an author can’t do much research, worked out in the end. A lot of drafts were written and discarded over 18 months. I got to invent a ghost who is quite human. She is being tortured by gods (i.e., society) by denying her the right to sleep/dream, controlling her memories, and shutting her off completely from loved ones she inadvertently damaged but longs to be forgiven by and united with. How does anyone escape a fate like that?
We know the need to be loved is universal. In Ghost With Two Hearts, I began to wonder if that includes the dead.