How to start with characters and end with plots

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

October 25, 2009 -- 11:49 p.m.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a character writer—world-building and plots comes difficult to me. Usually, as an author, I throw several characters together in a bag to watch them bounce around like atoms. Whatever comes out is my story. Which is why sometimes my stories seem a little disorganized. Another downside of this method is that characters pretty much dictate the story. So it’s hard to think of revisions to the plot because you’re stuck in this box: the character told me that this is how the story must be and therefore it IS that way, because the author becomes the character’s mouthpiece. And some characters can be pretty darn dictatorial. Sometimes, when I write I feel like there are real people sitting on my shoulders telling me what to say. Every author has an intense intimacy with their characters, and I don’t know whether my relationship is deeper or whether I’m more insane or whether everyone feels this way. Another downside is that you end up with the lots of story starts because you have great characters, but their stories never quite reach completion because you’re missing other elements. For example, I have the beginning to a novel where a female psychotic serial killer with multiple personality disorder in the jazz age is trying to prove that, this one time, it wasn’t her who killed the young pianist. Interesting character, but one I’m pretty sure I’m incapable, at this point in time, of pulling off as a writer. The unreliable narrator plus the historical research plus the first-person perspective are all things I haven’t played with much before, so it’s just more than I can swallow in one gulp, no matter how intriguing a premise. I wonder how many flapper era mystery series are out there. I think it’d be such a fun, noire world to write in.

Despite the drawbacks, “character-first” is the method that works best for me. To paraphrase Orson Scott Card, there are four basic elements to any story: setting, concept, plot and characters. (He calls setting mileau and concept idea but it’s the same thing, in my eyes). If I try to start with a setting, the story is usually boring. If I try to start with a concept, the story ends up being preachy. If I try to start with a plot, the characters end up as robots basically obeying the beck and call of the deux ex machina.

So, for me, it all comes down to character. But even character writers need words, plots, and interesting ideas to make their stories good. So, what do you do if you have fascinating characters and no stories to put them in? If the colorful Space Mercenary Xllista, who is allergic to spinach and loves crocheting almost as much as she loves cutting down three-armed aliens with her thrumming laser sword, is sitting in you notebook with nothing else to do?

Here are my thoughts on how to turn characters into stories:

1) How to let your characters build your worlds for you

When I say I imagine characters, that image I have doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Usually I know at least a couple of experiences I want characters to have while in a story. For example, if I want Naheel the King of Thieves to learn humility, I figure a showdown with a big bad wizard at some point in time will temper his enthusiasm. I call this point a “milestone.” I have five or six milestones inside of my head that I plan to sprinkle throughout the story. I don’t know the order or the pacing, but I do know they HAVE to happen.

Because those milestones add up, when I think of a character and their growth in the story, I have two points. A)--the characters’ starting point, who they are at the beginning, and b)--who the characters need to become at the end. Usually that involves a character going from weakness to strength, overcoming some prejudice or fear. Luke Skywalker goes from farm boy who can’t defend his aunt and uncle from the evil empire to jedi warrior capable of blowing up the Death Star. Alternatively, a character can go from strength to weakness—the Starks in the A Game of Thrones lose the head of their household. Their family is scattered. Most endings are mixed: Luke Skywalker gains some mastery over his force, but loses his mentor. Or, more complicated, you have strength goes to weakness which in the end results in even more strength. Without his loss of Obi-Won, Luke wouldn’t have been forced to stand strong in himself and wouldn’t have been strong enough to stand up to the Emperor in the end of the trilogy. And this character metamorphosis is why its such an enduring story. Though Han Solo, Wookies and Light Sabres all help of course, because they are a handful of awesome.

If you haven’t yet come up with both a and b for your character, or at least a bunch of milestones, this exercise probably isn’t going to be too useful to you. Though if you don’t have both a and b, you probably either need to think about your characters more or you’re suffering from a case of “this character is god!” There is going to be no character development in your story, because your character has no weaknesses to overcome, no learning to do. He is a perfect, living god on the page.

But remember that godlike characters still have weaknesses and room for growth. Roland may be a godlike gunslinger in almost every way, shape and form, but he still grows throughout the Dark Tower series. Though if you’re a beginning writer, I’d advise staying away from impossibly mighty characters, because they’re so rarely as interesting to your readers as to you as author. Roland is one of the few characters I can think of who starts out godlike who I like. The point is, most characters we care about in spite of their godlike abilities, not because of them. Or at least, that’s how it shakes out with me as a reader.

So, the bottom line is: how can you create a world that forms the character at point A? For example, say it is important for a character to have an almost crippling fear of heights. While you could examine what mundane event led to that fear on an individual level—maybe her parents got killed rock climbing on Mars—you can also build a world where that fear is common, in fact, where not having that fear would make one a Despereux-type freak. For example, a world of underground dwellers who build caves in the rocks specifically to get away from heights. Part of their religion might be that anyone who ever stands on the surface has a chance of being soul-sucked by malevolent spirits. Alternatively, you can build the society so that the character’s weakness makes her even MORE of an outcast. For example, a girl who’s afraid of heights living amongst a bunch of winged cliff-dwellers (she’s the only one who was born ‘bare-backed’—an obscenity among their people because it Is so inherently disgusting) or people who live in homes at the top of God-trees, deities that have been imprisoned in tree form and demand the worship of the people who live in their mile-high hair. Maybe her inability to worship them because she can’t muster the courage to climb high enough is why she gets exiled and has to go wandering around to find the magical MacGuffin.

Both these scenarios I came up with on the fly in fifteen minutes, so they’re a bit cliché, but you get the idea. The world can and should be an echo of the character’s own internal conflict. The world should always heighten the conflict, both external and internal. Repeat the process with point b, where you want the character to end. Repeat the process with every milestone—have the characters’ growth help you brainstorm some new detail of the environment. In the end, if you’ve got a good character, you should also have an interesting environment because it grows out of that interesting character.

And of course, every layer of depth you can add is a good thing. What kind of profanities would winged aliens use? What kind of items would they consider most valuable? How do they get dressed in the morning? From these types of questions, you can get an interesting concept, like “what happens if the heir to the throne is a throwback without wings and ends up exiled amongst the human colony of weak scientists she once despised…only to discover that humans genetically engineered her people in the first place and are now working to stop a disease that’s been thinning the flyer’s population for the past century, a problem resulting from their attempts to play god?”

Bottom line, it’s time to brainstorm, but hopefully now you have some good points to start with.

2) How to turn characters in the plot:

For this exercise, you need more than one character. Hopefully, a lot of characters.

One of the difficulties in my book is that I have too many characters. Out of curiosity, I counted. Godsplay has 43 named characters in the book. That means, on average, I introduce a new named character every 3,250 words, or one every 13 pages. Of course, most of these are only in one or two scenes or even referenced but never seen, but that’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s a lot of plots to forward, because every character in my opinion should a) be real b) exist to forward the plot/add something to the story (such as humor). And while I need a lot of characters to forward the plot, that means I need a lot of back story, motivation, and conflicts to be resolved. The number of POV characters is much more reasonable: 8, of which 3-4 are the main POVs and the others are all throwaways with only a couple of scenes each. So I need less help coming up with plots than knowing which plots to emphasize.

But say you don’t have that problem. Say you need to come up with plots and subplots. Say you’ve got three characters: Jack and Jill (your young lovers) and Josh (your villain). You know that Jack and Jill are on a quest for a holy grail, but not the details of what happens along the way.

Now, what drives a plot? Tension. If your plot has no tension, no conflict, then you really have no plot. You have a bunch of stuff happening. There’s a difference.

If you think back to your high school English classes, you might remember that there are numerous kinds of conflicts. Man versus nature, man versus himself, etc. But my favorite and what is often the easiest to write is interpersonal conflict.

So, you have interpersonal conflict between Jack and Josh over the holy grail. But is that their only point of tension? Say Josh is also an evil warlord who is attacking Jack’s village. If Jack doesn’t succeed, everyone in his village will die. That’s the stakes. But let’s peel that onion a little more. What is Josh’s motivation? Maybe he’s attacking the town in the first place because Jack and all the other villagers bullied him as a child, mocking him and beating him up because he was an orphan with a messed up face. That ratchets the tension even higher because in some ways, Josh’s retribution is justified and Jack not only is fighting for lives, he’s fighting for his own redemption over the mindless acts of cruelty he had participated in or even instigated as a child.

Knowing this about your characters can stimulate several actions or subplots. For example, what if Jack decides to try and find Josh and apologize. And Josh laughs in his face, or accepts it but refuses to stop killing the other villagers. Or what if Jack decides to take the fight to Josh’s adopted home village in return, threatening to use his magic to completely wipe the village off the map if Josh doesn’t back down, resulting in a Cold War style standoff?

Or what if Jack stumbles on a village stoning an outcast secondary character (who we’ll call James) and this time, instead of passively standing by, Jack steps in and stops it. In the process, he might gain James’ loyalty for life, and James has an essential clue to the location of the Holy Grail. Or James turns out to be one of Josh’s spies and the villagers’ cruelty is actually justified. In the end, he betrays Jack despite his kindness.

The possibilities are endless, but none of them would be available if you didn’t know the character’s crucial motivations and the levels of conflicting tension. A rule of thumb: the more layers of tension you have between characters, the deeper the story. That doesn’t always mean better. Too many subplots can end up confusing events, or distracting from your central theme. Sometimes your innkeeper is just an innkeeper, and sometimes he’s a single father of three trying to make ends meet in the middle of the Apocalypse.

And what about Jill? Say you know she’s a divorced mother who lost track of her infant son during a war, when soldiers left her for dead but took the baby boy. How does this affect her relationships with the other characters? Is Josh actually Jill’s long-lost son (although this could make difficulties for the Jill-Jack love-interest angle)? Has Josh promised to let her know the location of her child if she finds the grail and turns it over to him? Or maybe Josh is her divorced husband, who abused her, and she’s not going on the quest for the grail because she wants to find it, but because she wants revenge and she knows the quest will draw Josh to her.

And maybe she’s in love with Jack because his vulnerability reminds her of Josh before he became an evil megalomaniac, or maybe just because he has the same brown eyes as her son did, and, in the end, her story is resolved when she accepts her love for Jack and, at the same time, that she may never know who her son is. Maybe she’s afraid Jack will turn into Josh, because Josh’s treatment of her has made her cynical of all men. And so, at the end of act 2, Jill flees Jack with the key to the grail’s location because she doesn’t think any man can be trusted with it, and so Jack has to catch her before Josh does.

Any of these relationships can add either plot twists or subplots, and gives characters rational reasons for acting irrationally, which is sometimes necessary for a plot. Because there are no books I hate more than the books where characters act stupidly for no reason whatsoever.

From the villain’s angle, maybe Josh, Jill’s divorced husband, still loves her, and he is certain that finding the holy grail will make her return his love. Perhaps the holy grail even contains a love potion, and she will be forced to love him for the rest of her days as a mindless love slave. How will his love of Jill change his actions? Maybe, in the grand climatic battle, he realizes Jack makes Jill happy and so truly relinquishes her at last

Whichever choice we pick, we still end up with a fairly standard Josh/Jill/Jack love triangle. How can we spice it up? By bringing in the other characters, of course. What about the waif James, who Jack rescued to make up for his own cruelty as a child? We’ve already established Jacks’ relationship and potential conflict with James (is he a spy? Was the villager’s stoning of him potentially justified?) but what about Jill? Does Jill protect James because he reminds her of her own son, protecting him when all logic says she should be doing otherwise? Or what if, because of her suspicion of everybody left by her life in constant abuse, she suspects James is a traitor from the beginning and Jack has to restrain her from hurting the boy? What if James is actually her lost son, and she goes from suspecting him to being ashamed of her mistrust? And what if James lies and tells her he is her son, even though he knows he isn’t, perhaps because his mother is being held by the bad guy who says he will kill her if James doesn’t find the grail? Maybe Josh is James’ father, and Josh only had sex with James’ mother in the first place because she physically resembles Jill.

Complications upon complications. And note, this sort of thing can go on in the background while the main questing happens. So, even if there’s nothing particular going on in the main plot (we’re riding horseback from one area to another, cue montage of trees and quiet brooks) the tension is still kept tight by the character’s relationships.

In my opinion, the two more important areas of study outside of English and creative writing programs for an aspiring author are acting and psychology. Acting teaches you to get inside a character’s head and forces you to (unless you have a really hands-on director) to make up a lot of motivation behind their lines, turning phrases that can be really generic into something sinister or humorous, because of the motivations you infuse into it. Hanging motivations onto a framework of plot that cannot be altered and making every line logical, even when the play isn’t always. Psychology is also important because it forces you to examine the minutia of human behavior, and so you can think to include things like displacement and avoidance into your characterizations, which make your characters more real.

But every character you add is a potential for plot twists and subplots. If you’re finding it difficult to keep tensions high, I’d advise you to try the following exercise. I either invented it myself or read about it long ago and borrowed it so deeply from someone else that it became my own.

Write the names of several characters, the ones that are most important to the plot, on a piece of paper, roughly in a circle or wheel formation. I use the back of envelopes, because when I see a blank piece of paper, I get a little intimidated. Backs of envelopes somehow aren’t frightening.

Now—draw a line between characters who have a conflict/tension. If you’re feeling fancy, break out the colored pencils and delineate each with colors, for example pink could stand for romantic tension, red for actual open conflict (such as fighting), yellow for implicit conflict (they are on opposite sides of a war but never actually interact), blue for they’re going the same direction but they have different goals, etc.

In the beginning, you should have something like the figure in the second image at the top of the article. In the end, you should have something like the figure in the first image. (Yeah, they're messed up, I'm too sleepy to change it)

This is why I have a hard time keeping my novels contained to reasonable word limits. Because even my spear-carriers have conflicts and back stories, and I feel like they all deserve their turn in the spotlight, even if it’s only for a paragraph. In the hands of a skilled writer, you have a tapestry. In the hands of an amateur, you have a mess.

The point is, each thread of conflict can be developed into a subplot or can influence the main plot. This technique is good because IF you look at your diagram and see no lines of tension between a set of characters (say, your princess and your main male’s warrior’s wizard mentor, a.k.a. Kahlan and Zed) you can literally SEE the lack in your story. You fill that lack by adding a plot even that fills the tension (Zed no longer trusts Kahlan because of Shoata’s prophecy). This makes your story richer and fuller.

This technique also tells you where you can cut characters. If a character only has one line of tension with ANYONE, that means he or she may not actually be important to the story and can be cut, or at least, all his scenes can be shortened. This isn’t always the case—especially with characters who don’t play much role in the story but play a role in the character’s background, ie, the main character’s father. However, if you can create lines of tension from minor characters to major characters, for example, Tam al’Thor’s suspicion of Moiraine, you usually end up with a story that has more meat to it.

I’ll go out on a limb and say the number one problem with stories I dislike is not enough tension. Everyone is happy, cooperative, and the only difficulties they face aren’t inter-party, but from the big dark baddies outside. This is the worse tendency of epic fantasy, in my opinion. Even people who work together for common ends in real life sometimes hate and mistrust each other. That’s why the mysterious stranger in the party is so fun to read about—because he could be a traitor in your midst, if he’s not a Strider knock-off.

These are two tips for using your wonderful characters to flesh out wonderful stories. Remember, it’s all a feed-back loop. The more you know about your character, the more you can develop the world, and as you develop your world, the more your character develops. The same thing goes for plots. It’s very rare that you can have too much knowledge about your world and your plot, so doing these exercises shouldn’t be a waste of time for you, even if you have to cut things later. I might know that my planet isn’t a perfect sphere because an asteroid took a chunk off of it, but I don’t necessarily need to share that information with my reader. Still, it’s good to know in case I ever need that suspicious-looking crater to add mystery to my plot.

So have at it!

PS: In other news, Victor Plushenko’s return to figure skating at the Moscow event of the Grand Prix was phenomenal. Coming off three and a half years of retirement, he can still cream skaters in the prime of their careers. Purely amazing. He’s one of my favorite figure skaters of all time. It’s wonderful to see him lacing up his skates again. And it was wonderful to see the hero worship in the other competitor’s eyes… truly a skater’s skater and a strong athlete. I can’t wait to see him at the Olympics.


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