Wiley Cash on the writing process (hint: character over plot)

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By Wiley Cash

One question I’m asked perhaps more than any other is “What’s the hardest thing about publishing a book?” My answer is always the same: Writing a book. The publishing part was easy compared to the writing. My agent found me after reading one of my stories in a literary magazine. My agent then found my editor who purchased and published my two novels, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. The marketing department put out the word. The sales team got my books on the shelf. My publicist set up events and made sure I arrived on time. All I had to do was write the books, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. 

If you’re interested in writing a book but don’t know where to start, there are literally countless books written about writing books. You could spend the rest of your life reading instead of writing. Often, books that are written to tell you how to write are simply chronicles of that author’s process. This kind of book can be similar to the instructions you read during drivers’ education classes when you were a teenager: place your hands at ten and two; create a character outline; check your mirrors every 30 seconds; free-write until you find your way; check your blind-spot before merging. We spend hours studying instructions like these, and when we get behind the wheel (or behind the desk) we actually follow these instructions for the first couple of days. But soon we’re out there driving on our own, finding our own way, figuring out the process for ourselves with very little thought paid to the advice we’ve been given.

Land More Kind 200I don’t blame you, and I say that with the full knowledge that you’ll probably forget the advice I’m about to give you. That’s okay. I don’t have any idea how to tell you how to begin writing, or how to begin driving, for that matter. I can only share what works for me after writing and publishing two novels. This advice may not work for you. But sometimes knowing what doesn’t work is as good or better than knowing what does.

Before I sit down to begin a novel or short story, I’ve already spent a lot of time thinking about the characters and their circumstances. Let me be clear: I haven’t spent any time thinking about what the story or the novel will be about. What I mean is that I don’t think about plot, and here’s why: I think about characters.

I like reading fiction that is driven by characters over plot, so that’s what I try to write. If you’re more inclined to read fiction that’s driven by plot (books by James Patterson or Nicholas Sparks, for example), then you may want to disregard what I’m about to share. If your ideas start with what the story will be about instead of whom it will be about, then I can promise that what I’m about to share won’t work for you.

Dark Road 200 I find it difficult to stay interested in reading or writing fiction that isn’t populated by multi-dimensional, fully realized characters, and when I’m writing, that’s where I start. The main character in This Dark Road to Mercy is a twelve-year-old girl named Easter Quillby. The first time I “met” Easter I pictured her standing on third base during an after-school kickball game. She’s just spotted her wayward father alone in the stands, and she’s angry that he’s there. I found this intriguing. Why would a girl be mad to see her father? What has he done to upset her? Maybe he’s abandoned her. What kind of father would do that? What were the circumstances that led to his leaving? My mind began to spin with possibilities, and I wrote them all down. Easter is an orphan who’s living in a group home with her younger sister, Ruby. Her mother is dead. Her father, Wade Chesterfield, abandoned the family years ago. Wade is a washed-up minor league baseball player whose career was ended by his own recklessness. Soon I had two characters that I believed were interesting enough to think about even when I wasn’t writing. I wanted to know more about them, and I hoped a reader would as well. I eventually decided that Wade would kidnap Easter and her sister and try to go on the run and be a father to them. I was beginning to move toward plot, but I was only led there once I discovered how desperate Wade is and how tough Easter and Ruby are. But this introduced the need for more characters; people had to be looking for Wade and the two girls. Not only is this realistic, but it also adds an element of danger to the developing plot.

In North Carolina, girls in Easter and Ruby’s position would’ve been appointed a volunteer guardian-ad-litem, and perhaps this person would be committed enough to try to find them, but that would require a particular set of skills that not just anyone would possess. Perhaps their guardian-ad-litem, Brady Weller, is an ex-police officer. Is he retired, or has he done something that either got him kicked off the force or led to his resignation? Which possibility would be more interesting? Also, what compelled him to become a volunteer who works with children? Does he have children? What’s his relationship with them like after he’s done something bad enough to resign from the police force? Could a marriage survive something like that? By asking questions like this, I discovered that Brady had reasons to pursue Wade and the girls that were much more complex than his duties as a volunteer.

But Brady is a benevolent force—at least he’s supposed to be. Perhaps something more sinister is at work. Perhaps someone more evil is looking for Wade, and his two daughters are simply in the way. Perhaps someone has a personal vendetta against Wade. But why would this person just now decide to pursue it? These questions led me to Pruitt, a former minor league baseball player turned bounty hunter who’s looking for Wade for both vengeful and financial reasons: Wade has recently acquired something valuable that doesn’t belong to him, and Pruitt is sent to get it back by any means necessary.

Hey, we’ve got a plot, but we wouldn’t if I hadn’t created characters I believed in, cared about, and was interested enough in to spend some serious time developing.

Writing a novel is hard. It takes a long time. It requires many hours alone. You might as well spend those hours with characters you care about. Your plot will be better as a result.

Wiley Cash author photo 200


Wiley Cash is the award-winning and New York Timesbestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. A native of North Carolina, he has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has held residency positions at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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