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Characters in Search of a Story

Over the years I’ve heard many writers say something along the lines of “so I’ve got this idea for a story,” but then they follow it up with something like this. “See, it’s about this girl. She has magic that hasn’t been seen for generations. Her parents died when she was a little girl, and she’s been raised by her grandfather. Everyone in the village hates her, and so she’s become very independent. She falls in love with the son of a lord, but his parents disapprove of her.” Or, they’ll approach me with ten pages of detailed character sheets, like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.  In both scenarios my reply is usually something along the lines of “great, but where’s the story?”

This is a mistake far too many beginning writers make, confusing story with character and assuming that a strong character alone is enough to carry a story. Even a character-driven story needs a strong plot to move the action forward, and the best stories are not those in which you could plop any old character down within the story’s world and the story would still hit the same plot points. If your story is designed this way, then congratulations, you’ve created a video game, and not a novel. After all, in a video game, the ending is pre-determined. You may choose various characters to act out the scenarios, and you may make various decisions along the way, but ultimately, your character is carried along by the plot, and not the other way around. Good storytelling in a novel, however, requires characters who are intrinsically tied to their plots, and vice versa.

The classic example often used to demonstrate the essential link between characters and plot is Hamlet and Macbeth. If you put Macbeth in Hamlet’s place, the play ends in the first act, Claudius dead, the end. If you put Hamlet into Macbeth’s place, then Hamlet never would have rebelled in the first place. The events of each play are intrinsically tied to the characters who create them. Events happen as a result of character actions and decisions.

This is why stories in which characters lack agency are often so frustrating. We keep reading, hoping that the character will act upon his circumstances, will make decisions, will do something to show why this character is so essential to this story. After all, if a character lacks agency, and is simply pushed along by the plot, then substitute literally anyone else, and the result would be relatively similar. No matter how interesting a character is, if that character’s unique traits are not driving the story, then the reader’s own interest will eventually wane.

This is why, for all that character sheets can be a fun and entertaining way to spend an afternoon, focusing too much on building a character without building the plot to go along with that character, can be a mistake. These sorts of stories are usually easy to recognize. The writer often starts off with a full cast of characters. We are given their full backstories, we meet their friends, their families, we see them on the job, we see them at school, but the story moves at a glacial pace and for all that the author has created a (sometimes interesting!) character, they have not presented that character with a conflict, have not given that character a motivation, have not written a story for that character.

The other type of character mistake occurs when a writer creates a character, and creates a plot, but there is a disconnect between the two, as if the characters and the plot each developed entirely independent of each other. Usually this happens when a writer starts with a character and realizes belatedly that the character needs a story.  Take our magical girl with the dead parents, raised by her grandparents. Perhaps the writer says, well, we need a conflict, so let’s throw in a war. Someone awful invades her country, kills someone she loves. She’s magical, and she makes it her mission to stop this invasion. There we go, plot. Rolling your eyes yet? Does this sound generic and interchangeable? It should! This scenario is where we end up with a character that lacks agency, who is pushed along by the plot, rather than being the force driving the plot. No matter how well developed our characters are, if they are not connected to the plot, the conflict will seem shallow.

It is absolutely fine to start with a character, or to be better at creating characters than at thinking up plots. The mistake is to create a character , or even a whole slew of characters, and decide that from that point you are ready to start your novel. Once you have created your character, more than identifying minutiae of your character’s personality, you need to identify your character’s motivation. Character sheets might suggest you ask yourself what your character’s favorite breakfast cereal is, or whether your character is a cat person or dog person, but the real questions you must ask about your characters are “what does my character want?” and “who or what is stopping them from getting it?”

Take our magical girl. What is it that she’s always wanted? Acceptance? A family? Who is stopping her from being accepted? Her awful village and her boyfriend’s parents, right? So when the invaders come, is this perhaps her chance to prove herself? To win acceptance from her people? What about a family of her own — if she helps win this war, will her lover’s family accept her as his wife? And maybe she does win, but finds that is not enough to gain acceptance — what then? Or perhaps they do accept her, and she’s still not happy?  Maybe all along she didn’t accept herself either, and the conflict wasn’t between her and the village at all, but between her and her own self doubt? The story then is not at all about winning or not winning the war, it is about our magic girl struggling for acceptance and learning to accept herself, which is a much more interesting story (if still a bit cliched, forgive me, it’s an off the cuff example, not the result of actual novel planning) than a simple story of heroes and invaders.

Ultimately, character and plot are interconnected. The best stories take unique characters and put them in situations that are equally unique to that character. If your character lacks either a clear conflict or a clear connection to the story’s conflict, you’re bound to have a mediocre story, no matter how interesting the character is.

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