Building Plot from Character

17 Jan

by Susan Dennard


Last Friday’s QOTW was about avoiding a contrived plot.  At the time, I took this to mean a copy-cat plot, but the responses of Mandy and Julie made me see what the question could have meant: how do you avoid a forced plot — a turn of events in the story that doesn’t feel natural.  Julie said, “if a seemingly unsolvable problem is solved by a character conveniently having an ability that was unknown before the crisis moment, the solution feels contrived.” Mandy mentioned “it’s the decisions the characters make that effect how the plot plays out.”

I wanted to take both of these fantastic answers a step further.  To avoid that feeling of “what a coincidence!” or “this feels out-of-character“, you can focus on building your plot from a character.  Whether you a plotter or a pantster, it’s important to keep in mind that in most stories character dictates plot.  Even the most plot-driven stories are affected by the heroes — think of Indiana Jones or Lord of the Rings where quests are the main force behind the story but characters also affect how that quest plays out.

Ultimately, convincing stories boil down to the decisions and actions a character takes feeling natural to that character (just like Julie and Mandy said).  The best way to show what I mean is to use my favorite stories as examples.

Plot-driven Stories

How would Star Wars: A New Hope have differed if Luke were a different type of person?

Luke is a reluctant hero — though he wants excitement and change, he’s unwilling to leave behind his family on the whim of his old pal, Ben Kenobi.  In fact, Luke is kind of a whiny baby.  For him to have willingly accepted Ben’s request to face Darth Vader from the beginning would have felt wrong.  Why?  Because it’s not in his character to actually face excitement and change fearlessly.  It’s not until his family is killed that he decides to set out on his quest and face the major nasty, Darth Vader.

What if Luke had been a braver, more aggressive character?  He’d have been gung-ho over facing Darth Vadar from the get-go.  We’d have found it weird if he’d been reluctant.

What if Luke had been a downright coward?  Well, no way in hell he’d have joined Ben Kenobi — dead family or not.  The quest just wouldn’t have happened.

The plot has to fit the characters.

Character-driven Stories

How would Napoleon Dynamite be different if Napoleon were a different type of person?

Well…you wouldn’t even have the same story!  If Napoleon didn’t call home for chapstick or draw hideous portraits of his prom dates, you simply wouldn’t have the same movie.  In other words, everything in a character-driven story is decided by the main character.  To have even the slightest out-of-character action is much more obvious, and to force plot events on a character will instantly alienate readers/viewers.

Again, the plot has to fit the characters.

How to Build Plot from Character

I foolishly messed this up with my first draft of The Spirit-Hunters — I made up a series of events I thought were über cool, threw some random characters in to act it out, and BAM!  I had a completely wretched story that was utterly unconvincing and took a year of heavy revisions to salvage.

Mandy offers great advice in the QOTW: “This is why I always reccomend that if you have a book idea, the first thing you do is figure out what kind of character would create the most conflict– whether that means a bossy Type A character who loses control, a fashoinista who ends up stranded in the woods, a socially awkward girl who ends up in high society, etc. If you truly think about what kind of characters will naturally create the most conflict, chances are the plot won’t feel forced.

The instant you’ve got your Shiny New Idea, sit down and sort out the best character for it — be it the kind of person who will create the most conflict (a reluctant Luke Skywalker) or the kind of person most likely to be up to these sorts of challenges (an always ready Indiana Jones).  If you’re writing a romance, what traits in the hero will most conflict with the heroine?  Thinking about characteristics and the conflict that can arise from such personalities will let you tap into a whole new (and convincing!) slew of plot events!

Have you made this same mistake in your own writing?  Have you seen it done in any movies/TV/novels?  Or can you think of a story that would be totally changed if the protagonist were a different sort of person?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.


27 Responses to “Building Plot from Character”

  1. Carrie January 17, 2011 at 12:24 AM #

    Great post, Susan! Somehow using Star Wars as an example always makes everything clear…Thanks!

    • sdennard January 17, 2011 at 11:30 AM #

      I know! STAR WARS is always the best example for EVERYTHING! 😀 I heart that movie a little too much…

  2. authorguy January 17, 2011 at 7:45 AM #

    This is funny. I was inspired to write my own post about contrived character development because of your ‘contrived plot’ blog post too.

    The answer to your question is in there already. Diane Duane’s Door Into Fire is another where a character who displays no great interest in introspection ‘suddenly’ sees ‘the nature of reality’ or some such and resolves the plot. I hate it when that happens.

    • sdennard January 17, 2011 at 11:31 AM #

      You always have the best examples, Marc! And thanks for sharing the link — funny how that one QOTW got so many people thinking! 🙂

      • authorguy January 17, 2011 at 11:58 AM #

        There’s a reason why action heroes have a Merlin character in the background. Somebody has to be insightful without acting OOC. I may be guilty of the opposite fault, letting character determine plot too much. If that’s a fault.

    • Diane Duane January 18, 2011 at 6:38 AM #

      Well, so do I. But at the time (while I was writing, anyway) the situation didn’t look quite that way to me.

      …I would say this, though: would you be willing to cut the writer some slack in that case, considering it was her very first book?

      • authorguy January 18, 2011 at 6:44 AM #

        Pretty fabulous first book!

        • Diane Duane January 18, 2011 at 2:04 PM #

          Thank you! It wasn’t a perfect start by any means, but it was far more warmly received than I could ever have expected. And encouraged me to keep going. 🙂

      • sdennard January 18, 2011 at 7:32 AM #


        Oh dear me, SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD changed my life. Thank you, thank you for stopping by our blog!

        • Diane Duane January 18, 2011 at 2:09 PM #

          (grin) I don’t know if I’m worth much as a subject for obsession, but I’m glad you liked the book. So many people have liked it over a lot of years: and I’ve become increasingly fond of that universe. (In fact I can’t seem to stop writing in it… but fortunately the publisher keeps buying the books, so I can’t complain.) 🙂

          …And it was a pleasure to stop by, anyway! It’s always reassuring to see that other writers are going through the same kind of stuff I am from day to day….

          • Susan January 18, 2011 at 9:00 PM #

            I’m trying to refrain from hyperventilating, but my sister just ran to my computer screen and we are both going fangirl crazy… Again, thank you for stopping by and for still writing in that universe!!

  3. lbdiamond January 17, 2011 at 10:00 AM #

    Interesting! This is a great post! Thanks for sharing! (You’ve made me think, which is SUPER COOL!)

    • sdennard January 17, 2011 at 11:31 AM #

      Hahaha — I DO like making people think! 😉

      Glad you liked the post!

  4. Meredith January 17, 2011 at 11:11 AM #

    Excellent post! I definitely made some MAJOR mistakes in the earlier drafts of my novel. I thought having a few cool scenes and an awesome setting would make a novel. And … not so much. Fortunately, I found a few awesome people willing to help me fix it. 🙂

    • sdennard January 17, 2011 at 11:33 AM #

      Hahaha, Meredith — I think maybe we talked about this when we chatted… About planning this great story but not really thinking about what using those plot would MEAN in terms of character or set-up. Major mistake, huh? And SO MUCH WORK to fix! Lesson learned for the future, though — so better late than never! 😀

  5. Julie Eshbaugh January 17, 2011 at 12:30 PM #

    Thanks for the shout-out Sooz! This was an awesome post. I will definitely keep it in mind as I consider my WIP. 🙂

    • sdennard January 17, 2011 at 4:51 PM #

      Well, it was all inspired by you and Mandy!! 😉

  6. ychi January 17, 2011 at 1:48 PM #

    My problem is that the Shiny New Idea is always a *plot* idea, and then I jam in some characters and away we go! …Into a big fat mess.
    So IMO you’ve hit it bang on – you’ve got to think about what character hits the most awkward angles in the situation, and then make them fix it. 🙂
    PS: I’ve never seen/read Star Wars. Which came first, book or movie?

    • sdennard January 17, 2011 at 4:53 PM #

      NO STAR WARS!? Yahong, my dear friend, we must rectify this. Go rent the film Star Wars: A New Hope and watch it. Don’t judge it by the special effects (it’s 30+ years old!), but by how well George Lucas follows the Hero’s Journey and character archetypes! And how kick-butt Princess Leia is (she’s my hero!).

  7. TymCon January 18, 2011 at 4:22 PM #

    Loce the post. Since Sabrial is the only book I can think of that you and one or two others have read i’m just going to mention that. Can you imagine if Sabrial wasn’t an overconfident hero? And if Moggot ain’t got no snark? (Gasp)

    • Susan January 18, 2011 at 9:01 PM #

      Woah, great example!!! Moggot with no snark would be just plain un-fun… Moggot is one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE characters, too!! 😀

  8. Ciara Knight January 18, 2011 at 5:45 PM #

    Fantastic post, Susan. Anything with Star Wars is great!
    Hope you had fun today on my blog.

    • Susan January 18, 2011 at 9:01 PM #

      Thanks, Ciara! And I really appreciate you featuring me on your blog — thanks again!! 🙂

  9. H. Holdsworth January 19, 2011 at 1:40 AM #

    Thanks Susan! When I originally posted my question, I did have the more “forced plot” idea in mind, but your response made me look at the issue a completely different way! I guess we both pushed each other out of the box a little on that one, and that’s almost always a good thing when it comes to writing. 🙂

    I really like the thoughts you shared here, also. Keep up the good work; I love reading your posts!

    • Susan January 19, 2011 at 9:39 AM #

      You’re most welcome — thanks for asking such awesome questions!! 😉

  10. Anonymous October 26, 2011 at 8:17 PM #

    This made everything so much clearer for me, so thanks for the post! 😉


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