Character Dead-Ends

Good morning, welcome to Friday. The weekend is looking pretty awesome, so let’s start it with a discussion of characters, because okay that’s a terrible segue, but it’ll all be okay because you don’t check this blog out for my recommendations on drinks (PS anything with rum was my jam) you’re here for the breakdown of story elements.

Off we go. Buckle in.

Earlier this week, we talked plots, and now we’re going to look at character. To me, there’s nothing more integral to the story, no matter the plot or genre, than the characters, because we follow them, and ideally, care about them.

We’ve talked a lot about character building, about how they need a philosophy, about how they need to exist larger than the plot, and one day we’re gonna talk about how characters need to setup their own success, but right now we’re gonna look at characters who go all sad trombone flaccid and seem to blend into the background just when the action they’re supposed to be doing is sometimes the biggest part of the story.

Characters need a reason to do stuff. And they have at least one reason, which we’ll call plot-reason. Plot-reason is the “because the plot says so” answer to the “why is the character doing that” question. Plot-reason matters most within the sphere of the plot (it’s really gonna suck for Boise Idaho if Boise Idaho is reduced to ash thanks to a neutrino dragon from the alternate dimension), and provides a limited reason for the characters to take action (if they’re a Boise resident, they don’t want to be dragon snacks).

A writer will buttress the plot-reason with a really shallow personal agenda, or often a romantic subplot that develops because of plot-reason (like the anti-dragon warrior falls in love with the mayor of Boise while trying to save her AND Boise, but we’re led to see that because she’s the top-billed actress in this movie, we’re supposed to believe the leading man is just going to love her … because plot-reasons).

Doing that makes two things very clear: the writer thinks a thin coating of character development is “good enough”, and that a subplot’s job is to be the plot’s sidekick. Neither of those things are true, because of the character(s) involved.

Character development is what we’re expecting to experience over the course of the story. No, not all development is positive, I mean we can watch the psychopath get more psychopathic and feel satisfied because the character stayed on target like an X-Wing pilot. Development just means a change so that we know the actions that prompted that change matter. You know how you talk to someone and they tell you they want to see real change in your behavior, and if you go right back to do the thing that prompted the conversation in the first place, you’re basically showing them that you aren’t capable of change? Yeah, it’s like that.

Likewise, if you use a subplot to support the primary plot, you’re saying the subplot itself isn’t worth developing outside the main plot, which is kinda like calling it parasitic or vestigial. Subplot is its own plot, separate and profound. It’s not the main plot, because the main plot is just where the writer is putting attention.

Characters intersect with the plot, they’re not always and only working in parallel. The plot is ONE THING that helps develop them, and it might be a BIG ONE THING but it is still just one thing. That fact that it’s where this stack of pages and words is wrapped is (and I believe should be) secondary.

A character isn’t going to feel realized if they’re just around to do plot-reasons. A character that you’re devoting story and page-space to isn’t a character you should be able to easily unplug and replace like it’s a weird off-brand USB device that you can never seem to eject normally. And yes, you want them to feel realized, especially if you’re going to take these characters and this world to series or at least a sequel.

So what’s beyond plot-reason? Personal reason. This is usually where that romantic subplot shows up, because romance is personal, and that’s good enough right? NO. Giant flaming neon NO. It’s not about good enough. If it were all about good enough, I’d still be considering a career as a pharmacy technician or convenience store clerk. We can all do better than good enough when it comes to our characters.

How do we do better? We ask a child’s favorite question: “Why” Why is the character doing whatever they’re doing? If it’s because plot, find a better reason.Find a bigger reason, find a reason that resonates with a core value of the character and really do more than just explore it on some superficial level, like “he’s a cop so its his job to do the right thing.”

Because the superficial is obvious and it has the footprints of so many people who have walked that ground before. Go deeper. Dig into the story-earth. Maybe there’s a character backstory (that you’re going to do better than share with the reader than via flashback or dream sequence, right?)

The personal reasons not just tie to this current plot, but also possible future plots (what’s up series writers), so long as each future plot seed is distinct within the logic of the world and story you’re telling. What I mean is this: If you’re telling the story of a space gigolo looking for love across the galaxy, it would make sense for the character to have a running theme of not finding meaningful love on the regular. It would not however make sense that this space gigolo is always embroiled in galactic space politics, even if his preferred clientele are space congresspeople. (Sort of like how the latter Die Hard movies have John McClane happening to the them, rather than McClane being the receiver of the movie). It’s important because when the character is bigger than the plot, you lose the element of risk for that character. Risk for a character gives them challenge, and feeds into the risk they’re also facing thanks to the plot.

Lastly, characters can’t stop being themselves when the plot is over. Okay, fine, if you kill the character off and don’t have any supernatural elements in your story, the character isn’t themselves anymore, but barring a catastrophic face-first meeting with a flamethrower and paper shredder, a character can live past the plot. Ideally, they do this having been changed by the plot in more than just big picture ways (yeah, if you blow up Boise it’s gonna be hard to live there, but also the trauma of having Boise blown up should persist). It’s the little ways change can be shown that give the writer the most space to show off their craft.

Just because the plot is over doesn’t mean the character’s life is.

Stop making dead-ends by connecting the character to deeper feelings and plans and goals than just what the plot needs. Not easy, but worth it.

See you guys Monday. Happy writing.



Posted by johnadamus



Wow, seriously. On some level this goes so deeply into craft that it was a real wake up call for me. As romance writers the question we ask on every page is “why do these people want each other?” Plot reasons and personal reasons and so much more go into the answer to that. If I give any of them short shrift, readers go blank and that sad trombone sings for me. For the record, I’m not saying I ever get it right, but I’m mindful of the practice. Lots of good stuff to mine here and it’s going to require a reread later too. Thanks for everything you do, as always. (All em dashes and ellipses were removed from this message and set free in the wild.)

[…] Character Dead-Ends by John Adamus – great things to keep in mind when writing characters. The WHY is important! […]

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