Nicolaos, Good plot driver
Actually if Nicolaos, the protagonist of Gary Corby’S THE IONIA SANCTION, lived in America today instead of in Athens in 460 B. C., he’d probably get picked up for a DUI after he has girl troubles and gets falling down drunk. But he’s an excellent driver of the plot in the second in Corby’s historical mystery series that started with THE PERICLES COMMISSION.
(Note: if you like historical mysteries like Lindsay Davis’s lively, well researched, yet light Falco series set in Ancient Rome, you’ll probably like Corby’s series, too.)
But now I have to throw this piece into reverse and back up.
Some years ago at the community college where I taught, we had an exchange professor from China who wanted to stay in America. How come? Well, in China, she explained, men drive the life car and she longed to be in the driver’s seat for her life.
I always liked her phrase and have adapted it to this question for fiction writers: Who drives the plot car?
Mystery vs. Suspense
It’s pretty common knowledge that in mystery fiction the protagonist, the detective, drives the plot car for most of the journey though of course the antagonist leaps out of the bushes from time to time and throws obstacles in the road.
On the other hand, in suspense, the antagonist drives the plot car most of the time until the protagonist takes the wheel near the end of the journey and drives the rest of the way.
I’ve noticed lately when I take the wheel of the plot car away from the protagonist or the antagonist, I get into trouble.
Imp vs. Ump
When I taught writing, I always explained the bicameral brain by saying you have the wild, creative and imaginative imp on the right and on the left you have the logical, orderly, and critical side. Both have their jobs. The former helps you get started, come up with ideas, get excited about the journey. The latter helps you map out the journey, find plot holes, that sort of thing.
But lately, when I’m stuck at a crossroads, instead of letting a major character figure out where the plot car should go next, either my imp grabs the wheel or my ump does.
What happens? One of two things, neither good.
When my imp takes the wheel, she laughs her head off as she drives the plot car off a cliff right into a plot hole or even worse, a cliché. When my ump takes the wheel, she turns the plot car around, goes back, and parks by the side of the road while she erects signs to plot developments three hundred pages down the pike in the next book.
(Arc 3 of the WiP took a long time to write due to these wrecks and detours. But I’m happy to say that once I asked my favorite drafting question, “Who wants what in this scene?”, I got my protagonist or antagonist back in the driver’s seat and finally I’ve arrived in Arc 4.)
Back to Nicolaos
In both books of his series, Gary Corby very wisely keeps his protagonist in the driver’s seat most of the time except when the antagonist takes the wheel or the reins, I should say, as for example, in the first chapter of THE IONIA SANCTION when Nicolaos madly pursues Araxes, the villain driving a horse cart down the walled road between Athens and the port city of Piraeus.
Now, basically, Nicolaos is a screw-up. He usually messes up whatever he plans to do. For instance, later in the story, he buys a magnificent horse named Ajax. But the first time Nicolaos tries to ride Ajax, the horse throws him off. It’s sort of like a kid these days who buys a souped-up muscle car, presses the pedal to the metal, and drives the car into a ditch.
And Nicolaos isn’t so smart. Both the girls in his life are way smarter than he is. His kid brother is, too. (But his brother happens to be Socrates, so that’s understandable.)
Still, regardless of his flaws, it’s Nicolaos, with his determination to clear a murdered man’s name, who drives the plot car of THE IONIA SANCTION from start to finish.
NEXT TIME: Marcia Talley’s A QUIET DEATH
Until then, happy reading and writing. Best, Juliet