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Character vs. Plot, Part 2: Building Character

Last time I wrote about how plot and character are interwoven, so when they interact you get a stronger story than with just good characters or a thrilling plot. (Read Part 1 of Character vs. Plot)

pl v cI love working on plots—on the what and how of the story more than the who—and for a long time that’s how I wrote. I’d come up with a setting, sketch out two characters and a starting situation and a vague idea of the ending and get from point A to point B to point C until I got to the end. My books generally have some mystery/suspense element, so it was pretty natural to work like that.

But as great as I thought my plots were, readers weren’t enjoying the books as much as I expected. It turns out my characters weren’t deep enough to make a strong impression on readers. If there were any questionable plot points readers would jump all over them, because they didn’t have a compelling character to keep them from noticing any plot problems.

My solution: I read a lot of books about building characters. I filled in character sheets and wove complicated back-story for each. I decided on a quirky habit or gesture or catch phrase (or all three!). But pretty soon I realized that didn’t get me a whole lot farther. The character still wasn’t a person. He was just a list of character traits. He didn’t feel real, and he didn’t act real on paper.

I just didn’t quite get it.

I have a writer friend who writes great characters; she’s less interested in plot. One day she asked me for some plotting advice. She summed up the story and asked me if a certain scene would work. She gave me a little information about the two main characters and I realized that from the short descriptions the scene would never work, and I was actually able to help her figure out what that particular character would do and that made the scene even better. It changed the way she wrote the scene and the whole rest of the book.

And that’s when it dawned on me completely: the characters really do write part of the story for you. If they don’t then you don’t know them well enough.

Built a Better Character

It’s vital to start with your characters and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are. It’s probably on one of those build a character sheets. Come up with good reasons why they have those strengths and weaknesses: childhood events, family background, educational experiences, etc. Round the character out. Decide what she values, what she does, what she fears, what she needs, what she wants.

Then play “What If?”

Is your main character usually happy because she had a great childhood with plenty of money and a grandmother who always had homemade cookies sitting around? She’s going to respond to stress differently than a person who was raised by a single mom and who put herself through college.

Now throw some situations at these two women:

1. There’s a layoff at their company. How will each respond?

2. A relative is sick and needs money or help to recover.

3. Her car gets stolen.

4. Her boyfriend cheats on her.

5. She decides to change her career.

6. She meets a sexy stranger on a business trip.

7. Come up with another 6 on your own. Have fun with this. Write a paragraph on each in your character information sheet. You may find you write more than a paragraph. If you want to write an actual scene for each, then go for it. It will help you feel and hear the character’s voice, word choices and maybe seem her in action before you start writing your story.

These little scenarios are where you connect plot to character. These are potential plot situations. Once you get a feel for how your characters will act in specific situations, you’ll have a better grasp on who they are and how they’ll respond when you start throwing your plot at them.

If you can’t figure out how a character will respond, then make a decision and come up with a reason why. It will help you fill in missing knowledge about the character.

Not sure what Jo will do when her boyfriend cheats?  Let’s decide she’ll give him another chance. Why? Create additional back-story to explain the response. Perhaps her parents are divorced and she thinks it ruined her life. She may stick with a bad partner to avoid repeating her parents’ failures. Now you’ve created a new layer for Jo, and that might come in handy in your story. In fact, you may decide that something you’ve just made up could in fact be a feature of the story because it’s so interesting to explore.

Plot x Character

I recently read a wonderful book by a screenwriter who helped me understand what I had been missing: the interaction between plot and character. The book was The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.

He uses a formula along the lines of

Character x Plot = Ending

This opened up a new way of thinking about the characters and the plot for me. For this method, you’ll focus on how the character changes during the story, the character arc. You still need to build your character first. Then list his main traits, strengths and weaknesses.

How do you want this character to change over the course of the story?

Hang on! You may be asking why your character has to change. Great question. He doesn’t have to, but readers engage more with a character who changes (preferably for the better) over a story. If your character doesn’t change, then you better have one hell of a fascinating and unique plot and it has to blow people away. James Bond can get away with not changing over the course of a story. But the movies where he does, he’s an even more powerful character. What can make Bond change? That’s got to be some good writing.

If you don’t have the best plot and characters as great as Bond or Indiana Jones, then I suggest having a character arc.

Describe the character’s personality at the beginning of the story, then describe his personality at the end.

I’ll use an example from a novel I recently wrote.

The main character, Simon, recently got an MBA. He wants to get rich. He works long hours and focuses on his career. He doesn’t like people who were born into money, since he’s from very modest circumstances and put himself through college and grad school. His mother was a waitress and maid who cleaned wealthy people’s big houses. He’s focused on his future and has a plan to achieve his professional goals. He’s not looking for love unless it only lasts till the next morning–and doesn’t make him late for work.

By the end of the book I wanted to get him to sacrifice his dream job because he falls in love and he couldn’t have both. I needed to get him to realize that his priorities were a little messed up and he’d actually be happier pursuing a different dream, with someone he loved and respected. I wanted to take a guy who was happy with casual short-term relationships and make him realize he wanted to settle down because it would make him happy, even if he didn’t think so.

Simon’s starting points                                 Simon’s ending points

1. Casual relationship                                  happy for now, maybe forever

2. Focus on work                                         quits his “dream job”

3. Wants wealth                                           realizes money isn’t everything

4. Doesn’t like wealthy people                     realizes they aren’t what he expected

5. Uses people to get what he wants          helps someone instead of using him

I’ve created two different Simons. I just have to figure out how Simon 1 becomes Simon 2.

You may notice that some of Simon’s traits can be strengths or weaknesses. It depends on the situation he faces. That’s another point to consider. Make some of the character’s strengths things that jeopardize his actual goal, and make a weakness something he has to develop in order to achieve it. I’ll talk more about this next time.

That’s where the plot comes in. Instead of coming up with my plot first, like I usually do, and then forcing the characters to jump through hoops, this time I had to craft a plot that gets Simon from the beginning to the end. What kind of events have to happen to get him to change? Which changes will be easy and which will be difficult? What order will the changes happen and how long will each take?

Now comes the fun part. I know who Simon is going to fall in love with. It’s someone who’s pretty much the opposite of most of the things Simon wants or believes.

I can hear you saying  1. that’s so obvious, and 2. that’s so stupid, because no one will fall in love with a person who is just what they don’t want.

But don’t give up on me yet. Remember how Simon’s into casual relationships? He could certainly find his complete opposite fine for a one-night stand or some casual sex. Or he could be attracted to the person only to discover later that they embody so many negatives. It’s my job to write the love interest so the reader believes the relationship as it grows and changes. That means the lover has to have enough positive qualities (to Simon) and has to be well-drawn.

Next time I’ll talk some more about how to build the plot. I’ll also share some worksheets I use when writing a story that help me move through some important steps in character creation and plot formulation.

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One Comment

  1. Great article I look forward to the next one! Thanks


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