Driving a Story Forward: The Marriage of Character and Plot (2018)
Story inspiration comes from every imaginable place—from far-flung travels, interesting settings, overheard conversations, observing someone or something, daydreaming, personal experiences, fury, fright, questions, and curiosity. The world delivers a barrage of possibilities every day. Sometimes these sparks of fuzzy inspiration burn inside of us for a while but then they sputter and die—we can’t seem to bring them together in our head. Something is missing. Other times we are either lucky—or patient—and a viable story forms in our head that has us itching to write it down. We know what it’s about. We know who will tell it. Without even naming it, we have a sense of the two essential inseparable bedfellows of fiction:
Character and Plot
You can’t tell a story without both of them, and you can’t tell a good story without both of them fully realized.
In Twenty Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias, he calls them the Dynamic Duo, saying, “Plot is a function of character, and character is a function of plot. The two can’t be divided in any meaningful way. Action is their common ground.”
One is the springboard for the other. A character makes plot believable, gripping, and important. Plot gives a character a way to bloom, become complex, grow and draw the reader into the story. Character and plot both make the other matter.
It makes no difference how exciting and unique a premise is, if the character is a wooden prop unconnected to the plot in a meaningful way, we won’t care what ultimately happens in the story. It’s a shrug. All of us have experienced being drawn in by an amazing premise, only to find the story fell flat because we didn’t find the character believable, or fully dimensional. Their actions seemed forced, or not connected to what was going on around them. Likewise, we’ve all picked up a book that has an amazing voice—in the first few pages—but we cease to care about the character because nothing happens. The plot fails to bring the character to the next level of flesh and bone. Static plot = static character.
Plot reveals character by allowing a character to act and react to events around them. This is how we get to know our character’s true mettle, their flaws, their fears, their hopes, and their strengths. Plot reveals what they are capable of, how they can affect change, how they are like us, and how they are different. This is the showing of “show don’t tell.” Plot turn by plot turn, we see them in action. Sometimes characters will make conscious choices, sometimes impulsive reckless ones, and sometimes their choice is to take no action at all. Watching how they respond to the plot draws us into their psyche. It helps us understand what makes them tick. When we see them in action, we get to see who they really are, not just who they say they are. This is where the rubber meets the road. Without plot, our character is just a talking head.
So what if one of our inspiration sparks only has a wisp of character, or only a wisp of plot? Or, gasp, what if it seems to have neither? What if it’s something you just want to write about?
One word: Patience
Patience is a writer’s best friend. Sometimes those vague wisps need to simmer in our subconscious for a long time.
My stories have come from every imaginable place, including those vague, hard-to-grasp wisps. One of them, A Room on Lorelei Street, came from a voice I kept hearing in my head. (Yes, sometimes I’m reluctant to admit this.) It was a character speaking to me, but I kept shooing the voice away. A compelling voice alone does not make a story. Not even close. I knew that. But the voice didn’t go away—the bugger—which eventually caused me to sit and ponder, just what is her story? I could see a girl looking at a tired house but nothing more. She had a problem. A big one, I was sure. I finally set out to find it. It began with a house she was reluctant to go into—her own house—and with something as simple as her name and a teacher who mispronounced it. Her name was important to her. Zoe. She pronounced it quite clearly for me, “Zoe, with a loud fucking e.” That was when the character truly bloomed, because now she didn’t just have a voice, but a vehicle for her to be fleshed out and make her world come alive—a serious conflict with a teacher—plot! Without her problem and quest, Zoe would have just remained a haunting voice in my head.
In a completely different vein, another story, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, began with a personal experience and two questions that arose during my daughter’s treatment for cancer: How far would I go to save my child? and, How far will medicine advance in another fifty years? These were questions that stuck with me long after she was cured. They had the vague seeds of plot but no character. It wasn’t until Jenna’s voice materialized, and her quest to understand who she was, that the plot really took off, and in the process helped me to flesh her out further. Plot fueled the character, character fueled the plot, and so on and so on—a back and forth symbiotic relationship. Because when the character acts on the plot, the plot is affected—it changes. The stakes change, the next steps change, the character is changed.
Both of those simmering stories took some patience, waiting for the right character or plot to come along, so the story could fully emerge. It also took a lot of trust, which is one of my many writing mantras—trust the process. Yes, I am certain, with all we know about the craft of writing, there is still a good dose of magic in the process and we have to trust that it will come. But I do believe studying craft is our best hope of building that trust, and catching hold of that magic.
The Seamless Story
In the stories I fall most completely into, I find the seam between plot and character disappears. Like the proverbial chicken or egg, I don’t know which came first, character or plot. I just know I am dazzled by the feast before me. I don’t see the elements of story—I just see the story. It comes together like a perfectly sculpted whole, not pieces puzzled together.
A recent read that, to me, is an example of a seamless story is Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. The National Book Award winner has a gripping premise—three adopted siblings, separated as babies, rediscover each other and together go in search of the mother who gave them away. Wow, right? But even a gripping premise can fall flat on its face without equally gripping characters to move the plot forward. Luckily, the other wow factor was the three main characters who told the story—each affected by the plot in a different way—each unique and fully fleshed out as they acted and reacted to their circumstance. The plot gave them a vehicle to come to life, throwing events at them that revealed them to the reader, and in turn, the characters became real and made the plot matter. We care what happens next. We care what the characters do next.
Another story that I thought was the perfect marriage of plot and character was The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon. The premise was timely and timeless—a girl is about to be deported along with her family from the only home she has ever known; a boy is pushed to satisfy his parents’ dreams instead of his own; their unlikely meeting—and falling in love. There is a lot going on in this story and it has a complex structure, but the main characters shine in this story even as they rip your heart out. Yoon masterfully uses the plot to make us care about the characters, and the characters to make the plot relevant to our own lives. Perfect. Marriage. Character = Plot.
Connecting Character and Plot
One way to help make the plot matter is to keep seeing it through the character’s eyes. Things don’t just happen. Things happen to them. How do they feel about this? There needs to be self-awareness, a frequent reassessing of their situation as it changes. What will they lose or gain? They need to remember the stakes, and perhaps redefine them.
In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maas touches on this saying breakout characters, “have a sense of self-regard. Their emotions matter to them. They do not dismiss what they experience . . . They wonder about their responses to events and what such responses mean. A compelling hero does not deny his feelings but is immersed in them.”
Have you ever read a highly dramatic scene, and then afterwards, the character has nothing to say about it? Or barely a response? They just move on to the next piece of action? This is disconnect between character and plot, and if the character is disconnected, the reader will soon follow. It has to be important to your character for it to be important to the reader. How have their prospects changed? What are the new risks? Are they afraid? Emboldened? What will they lose?
And I’m not necessarily talking about big battle or life and death scenes here. The stakes of the plot don’t have to be literally explosive—they just have to be explosive to your character. They have to matter. In A Room on Lorelei Street, the “high stakes” were Zoe’s ability to meet rent on a room. To her, it was explosive. In her small world, the stakes were enormous because it built on so much of the plot that had come before. The “plot” mattered to her. Whether it is losing a rented room, or losing an epic battle or life, the character knows the world as they know it will end. They will lose a dream, a promise, a person, or maybe a part of themselves.
Self-awareness is especially critical when the plot changes and twists. In the first book of my series, The Remnant Chronicles, the main character starts out with a simple goal, to escape expectations and have control over her life—specifically to marry whom she chooses. But as the plot twists and pushes and she reacts and acts, we see both the character and the plot transform. The stakes change. The character changes. But neither would change and grow and matter without the other. Plot molds character. Character molds plot.
Reassess with Questions
As a writer this all points its accusing finger back at me. Obviously, I have to reassess too. Often. With the whole arc of the book and with every scene, stakes can and do change. I need to ask myself not just one question but hundreds of evolving ones:
What does she think now?
How does this affect her?
Why does it matter to her?
Will this punch the breath from her?
Will it double her resolve?
Does she see complications pushing her goal out of her reach?
Is she morally dejected?
Or self-righteously empowered?
What does she want now?
What does she need now?
What is she willing to risk to get it?
And I have to look at all of this through her eyes, filtered through everything she has already been through. The answers to these questions will help determine how she acts and reacts to the next plot revelation, turn, or calamity, and how the plot will push forward, and be affected by her choices. She doesn’t act in a vacuum, she acts based on events, and if we look back, we can see the logical progression that got her from here to there.
Plot and Character Working Together
If it seems like your story has stalled, ask yourself, is Plot still doing its job of revealing Character? Even between big plot turns, is it nudging, poking, prodding, forcing the character to act and react allowing us to see them in a more complex way and bringing them to the next level of flesh and bone? Conversely, is your story stalled because your character is failing to act on the plot? Is that diminishing the importance of the plot altogether? Does it still matter to them? Are they an instrument of action or just an observer? Maybe it’s time to up the stakes to shake them out of their stupor?
I think understanding the very close symbiotic relationship of character and plot is a helpful thing to tuck in your mind as you study craft, in particular plot and character. There are so many great books out there that cover these elements of fiction. I’ve read a boatload and they’ve helped me enormously, but no one person, author, or writing guru has all the answers that work with your own creative brain. There is no one way to write—thank goodness—but there’s no shortage of knowledgeable folks willing to share what they know. Seek them out! Listen! Gather your tools. I still can’t resist a peek into another writer’s brain hoping to see how they do it and what new thing I might learn. I mentioned a couple of craft books earlier, but I have many more listed on my website and they nearly all touch on plot and character.
Now go, let the dynamic duo drive your story forward, and remember that neither plot nor character live in a vacuum—they need each other the way a writer needs chocolate. Oops, that is another topic. Till next time. Happy writing.