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.
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.
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.