(#3 in the series, How to write your best selling novel, by a best selling author.)
So I’ve just taken some of your valuable time to stress the importance of outlining your plot. And now, after all that, I’m going to tell you that your plot is secondary to your characters.
I’ve heard this argued for and against by brains far larger than mine (yes, yes, I know, insert witticism at my expense here). Character before plot? Plot before character? Chicken before egg? I’ve come down on the character side of the coin because I think it’s true that people remember characters more clearly and evocatively than they ever remember plot (which might be an over simplification but I don’t see the need to complicate it). You can probably think of any number of examples. One that springs readily to my mind (because I’m reading them at this moment) is the excellent Flashman Papers series written by George MacDonald Fraser. I can’t readily articulate the intricacies of the plots faced by the esteemed Harry Flashman, but I can extoll fairly comprehensively on what a mattress-thrashing cad and cowardly bounder old Flashy is, what?
“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ”
– Joss Whedon
But without a plot, characters are like puppets without strings – they can’t move or do anything terribly much (which is why some folks believe in plot before character). Another way to look at plot: it’s the crucible of conflict that burnishes characters to within an inch of their lives, so that their true natures can be revealed. Character and plot do, obviously, have a symbiotic relationship and neither can live without the other.
So, I take it you have your story idea and outline nailed to the crossbeam? Than let’s take moment to look at your characters and, specifically, dismember your main protagonist.
Right. Does he or she (or it) have a backstory? What motivates him or her (or it)? What are the character’s strengths and, especially, what are the weaknesses? Personally, I like weaknesses best. We all have them, though most of us do our damnedest to hide them, or at least camouflage them. I also think that we all know this intuitively about ourselves and others and seeing a close-held “truth” reflected in a character makes them feel all the more real.
Again, take almost any character in any story you can think of (including films) and I think you’ll recognize what I’m talking about. Indeed, often it’s the flaws that make a character tick. If you’ve read Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy and enjoyed the company of evil, broken Inquisitor Glokta you’ll know what I mean. (Interestingly, Glokta’s hidden truth is that he is perhaps not as broken as he at first seems.)
As an exercise, describe your main protagonist. What he or she looks like is not a bad place to start. But more importantly, what is he or she able to confess about himself or herself? What is he or she trying to hide? What is their secret? And how will your plot expose it? It’s actually quite a fun thing to write and will really help you get things fixed in your mind for when you begin the march of a thousand miles a.k.a. the writing of your novel.
Whole treatises have been written on how to create three-dimensional characters, but I think it’s best that, at least to some degree, you muddle through the process on your own terms and in your own time, aware of some specific guideposts outlined here. Getting too formulaic about it can be deleterious to the extent that perhaps well trod paths can lead to well trod characters, and that can’t be good.
I would say that almost nothing you can write in fiction could outdo the extremes of reality. No doubt you’ve heard the cliché, “stranger than fiction”. That goes both for characters and plot. My own view is that readers prefer to be stretched. Go hard on your characters’ strengths and weaknesses and you won’t go wrong.
As for a little more about plot, the key word is conflict, which you have already picked up on. If, while you’re writing, you’re getting bored, nothing will liven up your interest, to say nothing of the interest of your reader, than to have a large spanner thrown into the works. We, as human beings, are far more interested in hearing about things that go wrong than we are about everything going along swimmingly. Beg to differ? Consider the nightly news on TV, one of the highest rating shows on any network. Now, imagine the news without death and disaster. Well, it wouldn’t be news, would it? (Of course, to reassure us that it’s not all bad there’ll be the gratuitous story about some cute animal as a reprise after the weather. But what if the news was all like that? Clearly no one would watch it.) This, to me, is what plot is all about: not necessarily the death and disaster that fills the airwaves from around 6PM, but how completely fucked up and uncomfortable can you make the situation that your protagonist has to face. Really, go on, shit on them from a great height and see what they do to overcome and prevail. In doing so, your character’s true selves will be revealed. And just maybe the experiences they endure will mold and re-shape them for better, probably, but also possibly for the worse.
So, as you’re writing out your plot, keep these three words in mind – disaster, disaster, disaster. Of course, it’s relevant to the kind of story you’re writing. If you’re crafting a love story, the disaster befalling your romantic lead will be different to one facing a General riding along beside Alexander the Great.
Keep in mind, though, that there has to be, in the last third of your story, something called “the dark night of the soul.” I can’t remember who coined this phrase (I don’t know whether I read it or heard it and I’m hoping it’s not trademarked), but it is pretty fundamental to the reaching of a conclusion that satisfies your reader. The dark night of the soul is what goes completely wrong for your main character(s) just when they think (along with the reader) that everything is going to work out okay. This is most evident in romantic comedies. Boy has finally won girl and you think they’re set to live happily ever after, but then in comes that spanner and everything falls apart so badly that you think they couldn’t possibly get it together again. That’s the dark night of the soul right there. And then the boy reaches inside of himself and pulls out some insight about what a putz he’s been, which reveals how he has grown as a person, and suddenly everything is back on track before the end credits roll.
Okay, so that’s a cheesy way to look at it, but if you haven’t observed this phenomenon before, I’ve just lifted the skirts of Hollywood story telling for you. And you shouldn’t knock this. Hollywood really does know how to tell a satisfying story. Fiction – written fiction and no matter what the genre or medium – more or less always follows the same rules. It’s just that movie romcoms are male/female interaction stripped bare and the mechanics of story telling’s moving parts are much easier to see.
This brings me to address a little more substantially the subject of “the character journey”, which is really a function of character and plot rubbing up against each other. In life, the things that happen to us change us. Seeing the same happen to your characters will make them appear more real and lifelike to your readers.
So what’s your character’s journey? Let’s suppose we’re talking about a woman. The plot you subject her to should change her. Perhaps something she refuses to acknowledge at the start of the book becomes what she recognizes plainly about her inner being at the end; but only because she has been to hell and back (the plot).
And my final word on the potted structure of plot is this: your conclusion will be all the more satisfying if it reflects in some way, shape or form how the book began. And, if that reflection also takes in your character’s growth, well that’s like getting the letters Q, Y and Z together on a triple word score in “Words for Friends”.
What is it about the Universe, and our place in it, that we find satisfaction in things that resolve in a circle? It’s a mystery.
#4. Send your empathy muscle to the guy