How does a writer create a story with a compelling plot AND compelling characters? This was a question I asked myself throughout my writing of Madapple (Knopf), my debut novel. Released last month, Madapple is a crossover novel intended for older teens and adults. Part literary mystery, part psychological thriller, I knew the success of Madapple would depend at least in part on my ability to devise a page-turning plot acted out by well-developed characters. I expected this would be difficult, because often novels provide either an intricate plot or complex, richly developed characters. Rarely does a novel provide both. But why?
But why? As I was writing, I quickly realized why. An intricate plot makes demands on its characters, requiring them to act according to its mandates, which may well be inconsistent with what turns out to be any given character’s inclinations. I’m referring to characters as if they are alive, I know—as if they have inclinations separate from an author’s intent. Well, I think they do sometimes: the characters of Madapple certainly did.
As an author, I may have given birth to my characters but, like children, my characters seemed to have minds of their own. My plot may have demanded that my protagonist Aslaug behave in a certain way, only to have me realize Aslaug was behaving in an entirely different way. My plot may have required Madapple’s other main characters, Sanne, Rune, Sara and Rebekka, to say a certain something or do a certain something, only to have me discover the characters say or do something else altogether. Hence, there were times I had to rein my characters in—to force them to behave more consistently with my plot. Did this make my characters less rich, less real? Maybe. But there were also times when I altered my plot to appease my characters. Did this make the plot less intricate, less compelling? Maybe.
This is the challenge: sometimes a plot and its characters collide. The challenge for any writer, it seems to me, is not that different from the challenge of any parent: to give progeny the freedom to grow beyond expectations, while still setting some necessary limitations. I don’t know whether or not I accomplished this in Madapple. I hope I did. So far the reviews of Madapple have been encouraging. Madapple received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus Reviews and was spotlighted by Kirkus in its special edition: “Fresh Fiction: 35 Promising Debuts.” Vanity Fair described Madapple as “mesmerizing” and featured it in its June 2008 issue as one of its “Hot Type” selections. The Chicago Tribune called Madapple “exquisite” and listed it among its “Hot Summer Reads.” The San Francisco Chronicle said Madapple is “an ambitious, often haunting debut, a unique meditation on language, rationality and faith” and the Marin Independent Journal described Madapple as “a gripping mystery.” Now, I can only hope Madapple will reach those for whom it would be meaningful.