Good morning. I’m recovering from the crud of Dreamation, so while I currently sound like I’ve been gargling hot road tar and inhaling everything through a bus exhaust, I think it’s time to blog.
Now I should point that this is version 5.2 of the post what was going to go here, having laid out ideas for everything from “What an Empty Workshop Can Teach You” to “How Steak and Herbed Butter Tastes Better When You Tell Sad Stories” to “Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman Want To Help You Write.” They’d all be good, but then I read this post from Chuck.
Yes, it’s another Wendig post where I have a response. I’m sick, don’t pick on me. Chuck’s onto something here, but I want to take it, spin it a different way and give it a nice remix.
Step one, we need some music. Here, have some.
Step two, you’re going to need a plot and a main character. Nope, doesn’t matter what the plot is right now. Nope, doesn’t matter what main character it is. Male, female, alien, sentient raccoon, awful wrestler. Just get both of those things in your head. I should point out that if you’re not sure about either of your two choices, if you’re not sure you like either or both of them, these questions will help you.
Step three, we ask a trio of questions about the main character, to give us a baseline on them.
- What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about?
- What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead?
- What’s one experience that would make your character happy?
The breakdown –
What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about? I like this question going first because I don’t think we conceptualize our character’s fears that often, unless we’re going to tie it directly to the plot, and frankly that’s super lame. We’ve talked before about how the character has to be bigger and exist as more than just the rat in the maze that does the plot and then goes back to the cage. I think to some degree we can measure a character by the fears and the reactions to them, as well as the distance from them. It’s never made sense to me that you make a character afraid of something that never impacts them. (Being afraid of an asteroid hitting your planet when you’re telling a story about how you’re building a house doesn’t quite jive, because the scales are off – if you’re not going to be painting a picture of a web of insecurities, then you’re just eating page-space with material the reader can’t grab onto). Likewise, you need to know the circumstances of how that fear came around. Yes, I know, the character has that fear because you just gave it to them, but what’s a little vignette you can describe to illustrate it? Maybe it’ll come up in flashback, or you can reference it somehow, but it helps to know the origin points of things.
What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead? The “situation” might be an encounter with someone, but it might also be an emotional state or outcome. Exploring why they don’t want it to happen might be an exercise in avoidance, and it doesn’t have to be a sob story in the making, it can be played for comedy to some degree as well. But that space needs exploration. So too does the flipside: knowing how the character is trying to get away from that situation actively is going to inform a lot of what that character does and how you convey that to an audience.
What’s one experience that would make your character happy? I mean this in the big sense, not just how great it would be to have chocolate right now or how much they’d like a sandwich for lunch. Is there some event or action or thing they want to have happen? Is the bank not going to foreclose? Is the big work contract going to go through? Are they going to go on a second date? Now, it’s worth pointing out here that this might be the plot of the story, or even a subplot, but it doesn’t have to be. Your character doesn’t have to search out this specific happy, it doesn’t have to be the driving force of the story, but put it out there somewhere in the story’s universe to satisfy your character.
Step four, we put those three ideas to the side, and we go look at the plot. (Don’t discard the above three questions, we’re going to use them in Step five)
- Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start?
- Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so?
- What’s lost in order to resolve the plot?
The breakdown –
Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start? Characters are built for growth and change. They exist in a world where they get challenged. They have a plot that tests them. They have a philosophy that gives them a sense of size outside of the confines of the particular plot, meaning they feel and behave like real people. If a character doesn’t change, then there’s no sense of accomplishment. Sure, they might have completed some tasks, but if you can’t point to a shift in their behavior or their thinking, those actions are meaningless. The character’s behavior intersects with the plot and creates moments of tension. Like the guy who does his best to stay out of trouble, only to find himself in deeper trouble and barely escapes. Or the character whose passions actually play a pivotal role in the story, but because of the story, he may regard them bitterly. Change is good, even if change is scary and unknown and it makes you queasy, and makes you just want to accelerate through the scary parts to get to the comfortable things.
Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so? So many great stories wind us along page after page and then realize that “Oh, right, we’re supposed to be doing something” then there’s a manic race to quickly tie up the loose ends introduced way back at the beginning. To avoid that feeling of sudden acceleration and recklessness, make sure that every few story beats and scenes ties to the plot some way. Like spokes on a wheel, things should tie back to the central conflict. Yes, some parts are easier: the dead body, the murder weapon. And some parts are harder: the love story between the the protag and the woman secretly surveiling her, the relationship between the protag and her dog. But that’s one of the hurdles in writing, and clearing it will strengthen your craft and skills. Don’t just take the last six chapters all the way to 11, develop the story across the chapters (think butter spread on toast) so that you won’t have to race later to squeeze everything in before the story wraps.
What’s lost in order to resolve the plot? Even if the answer is “innocence” or “preconceived notions about X”, something has to be jettisoned, discarded, torn away, let go, released, or ejected. By identifying the material-to-be-lost within a key scene you’re giving the scene more impact, making the ideas matter more to the reader and giving them, as the kids say, “all the feels”. Loss is an integral part of development, and we can measure growth not just by the included, but the discarded as well.
Step five, where we tie these things together.
To do this, we’re going to work a little in reverse order. Here’s how.
- How would the loss of ___ change the way the character views happiness?
- What scenes can you point to in the progession of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have, or is desperate to avoid?
- Does the plot’s resolution develop any additional fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward?
What we’ve done here is partner the questions together (the 3s, the 2s, the 1s) to give us a third set of questions where character and plot come together. These crossroads-moments are significant because they show how the plot changes the character going forward, meaning the character is bigger than the plot, but the plot still mattered and had an impact.
Let’s break it down-
How would the loss of (whatever it is that gets lost to solve the plot) change the way the character views happiness? So, if the character is losing innocence over the course of the story, maybe that’s going to change how they feel about something makes them happy. At the most cliche, this is the “putting away childish things and stepping into maturity” but this might also be the loss of a partner changing the way a character feels about living happily ever after in love. What we lose either makes us care more about what makes us happy, or it reshapes how we interpret happiness.
What scenes can you point to in the progression of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have or is desperate to avoid? Maybe you character avoids large crowds. Maybe though that in order to chase down the killer, they’ve got to move through a crowded mall during Black Friday. Maybe your character needs to resolve her feelings about her dead child and she has to confront her grief by explaining how someone else can pick up the pieces and move on. Maybe your character is an ex-cop who left in a cloud of disgrace but now has to go back to the station to get some details on the robbery, and her former partner is now the chief.
Does the plot’s resolution develop any new fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward? Because characters are built to run on change, whenever the plot ties up, no matter what it was, there’s going to be some impact. Things have changed now, revelations exposed and character-states have grown and fell. Going forward whether that’s just until the story’s end or into the next book or the next session or the next episode, characters take their recent pasts with them. And because it’s recent, the wounds might not heal between tales. Which could lead to effects on the character going forward. (If you’ve ever messed up a limb or a joint, you know how winters can be a problem.) If these occur over the course of several stories or throughout one story, you’re helping cement that as part of the character’s composition. And we’re not just talking Indiana-Jones-hates-snakes, but also guy-who-loses-girl-thinks-he-sees-her-everywhere. Yes, there’s a fine line between making this an element and beating the dead horse into fine paste, but that’s what editors and multiple drafts are for.
Armed now with these nine questions, you have yet another set of tools in the toolbox for developing a story and a character. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hack up a lung and try and warm back up. Keep writing. Make art. Tell good stories. Risk your hearts.