Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Plotting from Character

Several of you have asked me to talk about how to use character to drive the scene action. This is a big topic, but we'll aim for a nutshell version today.

When we analyze character in a finished piece of writing, we look at two primary types of cues. First, we look at the character's behavior. Action follows interest, as the saying goes, so looking at what a character *does* will indicate what that character finds important. Someone might say, "I really want to go to the movies today," but if they don't get off the couch and out the door, we can conclude that the movies were less important or compelling than whatever that character did instead.

Second, we look at how other characters react to our main character. For example:

Theresa: I really want to go to the movies today.
Alicia: You always say that, and then you just sit there at your desk all day instead.

You see, Alicia knows that Theresa has a pattern of conduct, and Alicia has already made some conclusions about Theresa based on that pattern. When Alicia expresses that conclusion in the text, Alicia cues the reader about the true state of Theresa's character. (Maybe I should have had Alicia say: Theresa, you can't possibly go to the movies today. Events of the past month have put you weeks behind schedule, Quit dreaming and get on the stick, girl. *cough*)

So the reader takes these two types of cues in the text and cobbles together a view of Theresa's character from that. It doesn't matter what Theresa says (I really want to go to the movies) if what she does and the character reactions contradict that dialogue. (It might lend some small-scale tension to the narrative, but that's a topic for another post.)

The way to plot from character is to work this dynamic in reverse. You start with a character trait -- Theresa's ambition, or Theresa's recent inability to manage chaos -- and you find a way to illustrate it through the action.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but it can be done. Start by listing your character's dominant traits: honesty, seriousness, pride, creativity, wittiness, whatever. Take a moment to contemplate whether the trait makes your character more or less heroic, more or less villainous. Now brainstorm events which can be used to demonstrate the trait. For now, don't worry about whether these events fit neatly into an overall plot. That's not the issue at the moment. Just think about how that trait will translate into action, and how other characters or circumstances can either magnify or diminish the trait.

Generally, we want to find ways to strengthen heroic traits in heroic characters. We want to challenge and eliminate non-heroic traits in heroic characters. And in non-heroic characters, we want to do the opposite: defeat any tendency to heroism and enhance any villainous trait.

However, that's not always the case. Sometimes you might want to take an heroic trait and exaggerate it until it becomes a liability. Or you might want to test assumptions about what is or is not heroic. Get creative here, and treat it as a creativity exercise.

When you're done, you'll have a list of ten or twenty or a hundred ways in which a trait can be translated into action, and you'll have some idea of how that action could have consequences for the character. If you have those two ingredients -- action and consequences -- you have the makings of a real scene. Any idea that doesn't show both action and consequences is probably too underdeveloped to be workable within the context of a story.

But with those two ingredients in the mix, you can decide whether that scene might work in your overall plot. Or perhaps, if you really want the character to drive things, you might build the plot around the scene. There's a certain amount of flexibility in character-driven stories that you don't have in plot-driven stories, so flex it and see what happens!



T.N. Tobias said...

I never think about these things as I'm writing. I don't think I've ever had motivation and action in conflict, or went out of my way to highlight the wrong traits, but I've never read for that kind of problem.

I wonder if there isn't some larger story problem if you have to go to such detail to fix and fix what your describing.

T.N. Tobias said...

*"find and fix"

Sorry :(

Jessica Lee said...

This is a great post, thank you! Not only is it a great exercise in forming interesting and /needed/ scenes (since scenes that don't further the plot or character development typically are boring and unneeded), but it seems like it can really help you get into your character's head and pull out the essence of their personality.

I think I'll be trying this later today and see what magic happens :) Thanks, ladies!

Edittorrent said...

Truth is, Alicia (champion procrastinator) would probably say, "You're right! Let's go to the movies! We're already so far behind!" :)


Edittorrent said...

Jessica Lee, I know what you mean-- sometimes it's almost like scenes are inserted just to tell the reader, "She's afraid of heights" or "He has a problem trusting other people." And those scenes kind of stick out as labored and boring. Better to integrate this into scenes of plot action.

TN, I don't know if there's some larger story problem. I mean, it's all a process of writing. I do think that if we don't deeply know our character, we might have less to work with, and how we get to know more about the character probably varies with the writer.
It sounds like you learn about your character by writing the story? That's pretty common, I think, and might be the most easily intuitive way for you.

Other writers do better asking questions, envisioning issues, identifying traits.
But one thing we've both found with students and submitters is that it's not enough to identify character traits and issues. The reader needs to see these in action, and so it helps to always remind ourselves to show whatever this is in scenes.

How do you get this to work?

Edittorrent said...

@TNTobias This isn't so much about a problem to solve, but about a technique to try. As Alicia said, process varies from writer to writer, and character-driven plotting is one of those processes that tends to get little attention compared to other plotting techniques. So I thought it was worth a post. Your stories may be more plot-driven. Most are.


Jami Gold said...

I can see this as an interesting exercise to brainstorm and explore how to show traits with character action, but I could never use this method to drive plot development because it's backwards to my way of thinking. :)

I'm very much a start-at-the-beginning-of-the-story-and-write-through-to-the-end type of writer (I don't jump around with scenes), so my plot evolves organically given my characters' natures. They come up with things I never could on my own with this exercise. If I tried it, it would be like Theresa said, scenes are inserted just to tell the reader, "She's afraid of heights." Then again, I'm some bizarre combination of plotter and pantser, so I wonder if it works best for one type or the other. :)

Edittorrent said...

@Alicia, this is why I love you. Because we can go to the movies together. :)


Edittorrent said...

@JessicaLee Yeah, really, the scenes should develop both plot and character. It's just that we so frequently come at scenes from the plot angle, and this is a method for coming at it from the character angle. Let us know how it works out for you. :)


Edittorrent said...

@Jami But it might help you in the early brainstorming stages with a new story. might help you learn the characters in a deeper way before you start writing. Maybe. Everyone's process is different.


Jami Gold said...


Quite true. It could be used as a "get to know the character" brainstorming exercise before the writing begins. And maybe those imagined scenes would make it into the story and maybe they wouldn't, but having a handle on how they'd react to different situations is one of the best ways to learn about characters, I think.

Jami G.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Incredibly useful and informative post. Good examples. Thank you.