Who Breathes Life into a Novel?

We writers like to think we have a bold new idea for the next gripping novel. We like to think we have a different idea. We like to think we have an original idea.

The James Bond I Remember

But I ran across an Abraham Lincoln quote the other night that stopped me dead in my tracks.

I’ve always admired Lincoln. He was a good man. He had profound thoughts.

And I fear this was one of them.

Lincoln said, “Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.”

He’s right, of course.

I’ve been around a long time and read a lot of books in a lot of genres, and I am convinced that there are only six basic plots in the world:







The quiet dignity of Atticus Finch

And the plots and subplots of all books balance on one of more of the six. And the reality is, all six plots were covered in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

So what makes one book different from the last, or the next?

What makes one book better than the last, or the next?

Maria Granovsky had a blog on Caleb and Linda Pirtle this week, and she discussed the importance of a plot. She pointed out that readers want, demand, and deserve a good, strong, satisfying plot – all tied up with a bunch of plot twists that leave the novel as entangled as a pretzel.

And Maria is absolutely right. Without the plot, the novel doesn’t exist.

But who makes the plot happen? Who makes the plot worthwhile?

The characters make the difference. The characters take the plots, wander from one plot twist to another, and make the story memorable.

For example, I can’t remember much about the plots in any of the Jason Bourne novels or movies – they are all pretty much the same.

But I don’t forget Jason Bourne.

I can’t remember which plot belonged to which James Bond book or movie.

But I don’t forget James Bond.

Or the Bond girls.

Or Doctor No. Or Goldfinger. Or Mr. Big. Or Blowfeld.

I never can remember whether the accused was convicted or acquitted in To Kill A Mockingbird. I read it so long ago.

But I still regard Atticus Finch as the greatest hero to ever walk through the pages of a book.

Lincoln said there were no new ideas, and I can’t argue with him. My mother always said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” I can argue with her either.

But when an author is building his own world in a novel – past, present, or future – he can create characters with flaws and warts and courage and a brave heart that have never existed in literature before. They are the heart and soul of good novel.

Plots may never be original, not even the good ones.

But characters always should be.

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