Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
May 2014

Character Leads to Plot, and Plots Leads to Character

As writers, we often try to separate the different threads of our art so that we can analyze them and work on them. But the truth is that there are no clear lines between showing and telling, between backstory and frontstory, between worldbuilding and action, and between character and plot. If you have the beginnings of a great character, you have the beginnings of a great plot. And vice versa. No reader is interested in a character who does nothing. No reader wants to read a plot about things happening without a character to root for. If you build a character properly (and no one does it all right on a first draft, believe me), your character will lead you to the right plot. And the more events you show happening to the character on the page, the more reactions from the character you get to other characters, the more you can build exactly the right character for your plot.

A character has to want something, everyone says. So, what if you have a character who doesn't want something? Lots of people don't know what they want. Lots of people think they want one thing and actually want another because they aren't self-aware enough to examine the workings of their own heart. If a character wants one thing, starts haring off in the plot to get that thing, and then realizes that she wants something else, then do you have to start over from the beginning and show that character wanting the thing they will eventually want at the end? No.

Characters change. That is really the main point here. Character change is what plot is. Or rather, the events that create character change are the plot of your book. A character who doesn't need to change isn't a character you can write a book about. Or if you do, it will be the most boring book ever. I have seen plenty of books that fail because a character is so perfect at the beginning (at least in the eyes of the author) that there is nothing that can happen that will improve him. I have also seen plenty of books where the character is full of flaws and quirks but never does anything to change them and where the author has no idea that the events of the book are supposed to lead inexorably to a change.

So, think about it this way. Your character doesn't just need to want something. Your character needs:

1. Wants

2. Needs

3. Fears

4. Hates

5. Loves

If you can't figure out what your character wants, try taking away one of the loves. Think about how that works in Harry Potter. What does Harry want? Well, we find out because one of his loves is taken away. His parents are gone from the beginning, and his aunt and uncle are not stepping in and filling that role for him. He isn't loved. That's what Harry wants.

Another way to deal with the problem of not knowing what your character wants is to set up a negative want. Now, a negative want won't work for the duration of the book, because your character needs to do more than react to other people's choices, but it will do for that push a book needs to get started. So, try having your character's greatest fear come true. That can be an excellent inciting incident. Look at how well it works in The Hunger Games. Katniss's greatest fear in life is not that she herself will be called up as tribute, but that her younger sister will be. So when it happens, Katniss has to act.

Or you can use hatred to get things moving. If a character hates someone or a group of people, and then is forced to confront that hatred, you have a plot moving forward. Think about when a person in the racist South of the past has to deal with de-segregation. You can tell the story from either side, black or white. Change is coming, and it can't be avoided. Either the hatred is going to lead to a change of heart or further entrenchment in the prejudices of the past. Or you can use hatred in a smaller way, like hatred of a school bully or hatred of a particular food. Set up a situation in which your main character can no longer avoid this hatred, and you have a plot beginning. Your character will act, and action is plot.

A character who needs something often does not realize that need until you, as the writer, show what it is. As it says in Calvin and Hobbes, people will pay for what they want, but not what they need. If they need a kick in the pants, they're not going to ask for it. But you, the writer, are going to have to give it to them. Figuring out what your character needs, however, is different than a superficial want. Characters needs things deeply and often refuse to admit what they need because it exposes their vulnerabilities to others.

Now, when I say that you can start a novel with a character wanting something, and then acting to get it, I don't mean that your characters should get (especially easily) everything that they want. One of the biggest problems writers have is in using a book as a kind of wish fulfillment for themselves. I see this even in published novels and it makes me cringe. Your job as a writer isn't to give your character an ideal life. If your character gets what he wants, then has another want, and gets that, and so on, your book will be inutterably dull.

As your character changes through the course of the events of the novel, the thing your characters wants will likely also change. It might be that your character has a deeper understanding of what they want, and they see it more completely, good and bad mixed together. It might be that your character wants something, gets it, and realized how horrible it is (see The Hobbit) and then has to figure out a way to get rid of it. It might be that your character wants something that doesn't matter at all in the end, and the journey of self-discovery becomes what they need.

Obstacles to a character getting what they want are an extremely important part of the plot. It is also important to character development. What will your character give up to overcome an obstacle? What will he be willing to learn? What will be the price the character pays after the obstacle is overcome? Physical pain? A promise to fulfill? A lost vision of the future?

Sometimes there is a story in which your character cannot act in any way that will make a significant difference to the outcome of the story. This makes for a crap plot. (Sorry to be so blunt! I've written many crap plots like this.) For instance, if you have a character who wants her parents not to get divorced, that's not going to be something she can really prevent from happening.

Disney plots notwithstanding. If your character wants world peace, again, that is probably not something that is going to happen. I would suggest, in addition, that if that is what your character wants, you don't understand your character very well. Characters want specific things, and they are often selfish. Don't fall into the trap of trying to make your character so good that all they want is for other people to be happy. A character like that isn't all that interesting, because they don't have a lot of space to grow into.

Other times you will have a character who is solely an observer in the actions of others. Again, I think this will have some significant problems unless your character is merely a Dr. Watson narrator who is standing in for the reader, watching the real main character act and make a difference in the world. Sit down and make a list of things that your character does specifically to get what she wants. When does she refuse to take no for an answer? When does she think outside the box? When does she refuse to listen to what the rules say?

Equally important is what won't your character do to get what she wants? You can set up an interesting dilemma as an author, but the best turns in books come when the character won't accept that those are the only two choices and figures out another one. It can also be revealing to discover that a character won't, in the end, give up what he thought he would to get what he wanted. Maybe he had planned to give up a friendship, and finds he can't. Or he planned to do something terrible to someone else but realizes that he likes that person too much. Or he can't give up that gift from his grandmother. Again, plot and character are intertwined here.

What is the worst thing that can happen to your character? Lois McMaster Bujold says that she often plots around this. For your individual character, think about what she would most hate, and be least equipped to deal with. Then make that happen anyway, and depend on your character (and your own skills as a writer) to figure out a way through to the end. If your character has a specific nightmare, make it happen. If your character has a weakness or a wound, push on that. There is no way to hide in a novel. This is where the refining fire of character happens in condensed form.

Sometimes I see writers allowing bad things only to happen to bad characters. And good things are always the reward of good characters. Again -- BORING! If you haven't live in the world long enough to know that this isn't the way it works, then go read some books. Bad things should happen to good characters. Really bad things. Worse than you think at first. Dare to make your characters suffer. If you were the god of your book, and your character died and came to your heaven, imagine how much your character would hate you and demand an explanation of what you have put her through. And then do that some more.

Stakes are part of building a plot, but they are also part of showing a character developing. When things become more important to a character than they were before, we know that they are expanding their view of the world. When more things are on the line, we get to see how a character reacts under stress. You know how much you learn about someone else when they treat you badly because they've had a bad day? Times that by ten, and put it in your book.

A plot needs a climax, but if you think about that climax only as the part where the most explosions happen, you are forgetting an important element. The climax of the book is also where the character finds out if he gets what he wants. And this, too, is revealing. When you win, how do you act? Are you a good winner? If you lose, are you a bad loser? What is your character like?

The final resolution of your plot should be a scene that shows how things have changed. The character needs to have changed. In a tragedy, the character will have changed for the worse. But normally, readers will want your character to change for the better. They want to believe that they can change for the better, and your character is modeling this action for them.

There should never be a scene or an action in your book that doesn't have an emotional impact for your character. Remember when you are plotting that you need to add in a chance for the character to take a breath, to take things in. You can have different kinds of action, but a character should always be learning. We are all always learning, aren't we? Always in the midst of change, for better or worse. We do what we need to do to survive. In a way, that is what a novel is. The story of survival for a character, if you make sure that character is compelling enough.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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