The important off-screen character (or why I’ll never be a true plotter)

By Donna A. Leahey

Many years ago, I was involved in the production of the play Morning’s at Seven (that’s the name, I didn’t accidentally put in an incorrect apostrophe!). The play is about the lives of four sisters in a small town. The director of the play made the comment that the most important, influential character of the entire cast never made an appearance – the sisters’ father. His influence permeates everything that happens.

I’ve never forgotten that comment. It was so insightful that I always have in mind that idea of the character who never appears in the story but profoundly impacts it.

I’m working on a novel about three sisters. Their father died before the third was born, and I’ve tried to use that idea, to make their father an important character even though he never appears “on stage.” I’ve never quite made it work.

However, while working on some backstory, I discovered the character who actually is the most important, most influential character who never appears – The sister’s grandmother. Originally, I just needed to answer the question of why the sisters didn’t seem to know about this seriously very important prophesy. So, I decided that they didn’t know because their mother didn’t know. And the reason their mother didn’t know was because her mother never taught her about it. And that lead to the idea that she’d had a falling out with the family. And that led to the question of why? Which then brought me back to Ireland’s history of religious conflict, and an illicit romance between a protestant boy and the very catholic girl who would become the grandmother of my three sisters. So, she fell out with her Irish family and moved to America where she married her protestant boy and raised her daughter without the legends and stories of the family. Because of that, the mother never knew about a very important prophecy, which she inadvertently fulfilled and set my whole story in motion. Without the actions of the grandmother, it would never have happened.

As to what this has to do with me not being a plotter? The joy I felt when I realized that. It’s a special moment, when you suddenly figure out something about your story. When you make that connection, that creative leap. When your characters suddenly turn left and drag your plot in a whole new direction.

The more I write, the more of a planner I become, but those moments of pure joy will stop me from ever plotting the spontaneity out of my writing.

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