Story Crafting: Squeezing a Plot out of Characters

Earlier, I spoke of the relationship between the readers of a world, and the writer of a world, and how they each have a stake in the development of the world.  The first commenter, Andrew, pointed out that characters have a say in the world too.  This brings up the concept of plot-driven stories vs. character-driven stories.

In a pure plot-driven story, characters play second fiddle.  They conform to the action, and characters exist to move the plot forward, and character development, if any, is completely driven by the plot.  While this can lead to weak or dull writing (most people connect with strong characters), this is not always bad.  I would argue that Lord of the Rings is one such example of good plot-driven story.  Another example might be World War Z–fantastic concept story, without character development in the classic sense.

The other ends of the spectrum is character-driven stories.   The writer spends a lot of time developing the characters, their backgrounds, their likes, dislikes, prejudices, and weaknesses.  Then, he puts them in a situation and sees where it goes.  The writer my not have an end destination in mind, and lets the characters mix and have the plot flow from their chemistry.  This can be interesting, but it runs into the danger of a meandering story with no clear tie or end in sight.  George R. R. Martin’s series, while not completely in this vein, is more character driven than Tolkien.  My understanding is that he takes the character approach and plants the garden, seeing where it will grow.  (I guess Winter is still coming?).

I suspect I’m like most writers, in that I have elements of both.  When I set out to write When Dragons Die, I knew it would be a three-volume series.  I had an idea that I wanted to write a rational skeptic story set in a magical fantasy world.  I have an end goal in mind as to what will happen at the conclusion of the trilogy, with certain characters’ roles loosely fleshed out.

From there, I started developing the cast of characters, with no clear vision on how I was to get from here to there.  I wrote my opening scenes, introduced main characters, and then voila, the plot started to unfold with details driven by the characters.  It’s interesting to see how they impact the story and change your plans on you.  You can either force them back to the plot, or go with it and see where it goes, doing large course corrections only when necessary.  Each part of the book has had several revised outlines.  I had one key character who was supposed to be killed by another.  The killer changed between four different possibilities before the final killer was chosen, based on how they had developed through the book.

It reminds me a little of the Norse concepts of destiny and fate.  It is said that you cannot chose your fate (when you die) but you can choose your destiny (how you get there and how you face death).  I’ve felt like that with the story… I know the result, but my characters sometimes seem to have a say of their own on how they get there.  I’ve even had a character refuse to die (in the sense that when it came time to kill her off, it just no longer made sense for the story–so she’s still hanging around and playing a role).

When I started, I had an idea of who each character was, but not necessarily the statement I was making as an author with each character.  Now that I’ve finished the draft of Book 2 in the series, each character has found his or her own voice, and a theme has crystalized around them.  I have the Rational Heroine, the Man of Honest Faith, the Social Outcast Who Finds Inner Strength, and the Angry Atheist (who surprised me, because the Angry Atheist started as a Crazy Zealot), just to cherry pick a few.

I was sketching out the story structure today, laying the groundwork for the final book, making notes of how each character had grown and what personal challenges they came to, and when I crossed them with the plot goals, a somewhat surprising pattern fell out, one that I think could be used as a future tool to start with a character-driven scenario that would help ensure a dramatic plot results.  There was a clear distinction between motives and goals–the means vs. the ends.  Let me illustrate this further.  I’ll abstract the concept to prevent spoilers.

In the book, there is a “system”–a special thingy in the world.  The final choice is a moral one which gives the characters (both protagonists and villains) three options:

  1. The system is good enough–we just need to try harder and do it right this time.  Don’t change the game or rules of the world–it’s the players who are flawed.
  2. The system is good in concept, but it is fundamentally broken.  The system must be restored or fixed.  Rules must be adjusted–but it is the game, not the players, that are flawed.
  3. The system is fundamentally flawed and must be thrown out together.  A completely new paradigm must be built from scratch.

I broke my cast of characters into three “alignments”:

  1. Good:  Heart and mind are on the right course.  May not get everything right, but works for the betterment of each other and the world.  Impact on the world is either good or, if negative, because of a mistake (not willful).
  2. Broken: Fundamental flaws or character challenges, but can be an influence for good in the world.  Might be misguided or temporarily in a bad place, but not lost.
  3. Corrupted: Fallen to evil.  Beyond redemption.  Will only make choices that cause destructive/negative ends (even if they are good intentioned).  Negative impact often willful (but not always).  In the event that negative impacts flow from good intentions, their world views are so twisted so as to make them irredeemable.
So here’s where it got interesting, broken down by option (not all characters included here–just enough to illustrate the concept).

1 – Try harder to succeed within the system as-is (flaw is in the players, not the rules):

  1. Supporting Villain 1 (Corrupt)
  2. Supporting Protagonist 2 (Good)
  3. Supporting Protagonist 3 (Good)

2 –  Try to fix/redeem the system (rules are broken):

  • Main Protagonist 1 (Good)
  • Main Protagonist 2 (Broken)
  • Supporting Protagonist 1 (Good)
  • Supporting Villain 2 (Corrupt)

3 – Scrap the system altogether (get rid of the rules).

  • Archvillain (Corrupt)
  • Main Protagonist 3 (Good)
  • Supporting Protagonist 4 (Broken)

So what I saw was that people’s alignments didn’t at all correlate to the ends towards which they worked.  In fact, my most evil character tries to achieve the ends of one of the main protagonists, but the main protagonists are not in agreement with each other.

So, in Book 3, I’m going to focus on this dynamic, and pay special attention to the interactions between character with common ends, but very different motivations.  The importance in the effect they have will be the nuance of their spin on the situation, the “why” behind “what” they want to achieve (and how they go about doing it).

This time it happened organically, but I can see in the future using this idea (matrixing characters of mixed alignment over a spread of common goals) to structure character-driven situations.

In other news, I’ve gotten the final edits back for incorporation… I should be roughly 2 weeks away from releasing Lightfall (When Dragons Die, Volume 1) on kindle… and 2 more weeks from hardcopy.  In the meantime, I’ve finished the first draft of Book 2 and released the first bits to my beta readers… and am sketching the beginnings of Book 3.  At this rate, the entire trilogy should be released by December 2013 (Book 2 is targeted this summer).

Cheers all,


One thought on “Story Crafting: Squeezing a Plot out of Characters

  1. Pingback: Character Crafting: Shifting Perspectives | Inner Worlds Fiction

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