No wonder most folks think they suck at plotting—they do. Lately, I’ve read implausible plots, overly melodramatic plots only missing the villain twirling a mustache, plots so tangled there’s no way you can get the synopsis to five pages and have it make sense, and complex plots where the romance (and the character) are lost in the action. How do you fix this? It all goes back to character.
To quote Robert Mckee “character is story and story is character.” A good story comes from good characters—folks with clear goals and motivations that make sense. The plot then is actually pretty easy—you throw things (events) at those characters that will hit on their weak points (take them off track from their goals) and hit their buttons for their internal issues. The plot tests the characters you’ve created.
If you haven’t done the homework of creating strong characters to start—that means well developed characters—those story people are going to be feel pushed through a contrived plot. This will give you implausible, melodramatic, tangled, and/or too complex plots. This is because you’ll be using action to make up for weak conflict due to weak characterization.
I’m going to be doing my Plotting from Character workshop again soon, and from what I’ve seen in contests lately, a lot of folks could use this. If you start with character, plotting gets a lot easier. And characters need a few things to work well in fiction:
Goals – everybody wants something. Even the character who wants for nothing will still have something that he or she wants and needs – a story is about a character whose life is pushed out of balance. And the goal for that character is to fix this imbalance—to get back to a happy place. Goals work best when they are a specific thing that represents achieving that goal—which is how you end up with things like the Maltese Falcon (it’s something tangible folks can be after—having it in your hands means goal achieved).
Negative goals (to avoid some event), aren’t so great unless you also have a clock running—as in stopping the bomb from blowing up becomes a positive due to that ticker. But something like avoiding marriage is a little harder—since it’s a negative, the reader doesn’t knows when the character has achieved this goal (Is he married now? Married now? How about now?) See—that’s not going to give you a tangible “he made it” goal.
Motivations – to go along with the goals, fictional character needs good reasons for their actions, for their goals. Fictional folks have to make a lot more sense than real people. And motivations work best if deeply rooted in the characters psyche—the deeper, the better. As in, a motivation that comes from a key, formative event the character’s childhood is much stronger than a motivation that comes from a recent event. For example, a character that needs to find a new job because she’s been fired—that’s motivation, yes. It matters, but it hasn’t been made personal. A deeper motivation comes from that character having been raised poor. So what if she saw her mother crying over a broken down car when she was ten and vowed never to be that person. Now, she’s got strong motivation to get that new job. The motivation has been made personal. And notice how you also want to tie this motivation to a key moment in that character’s life so it will resonate—and you can use that scene then in the story.
Internal Needs – this relates to motivations, and also to goals. Stories work best with lots of conflict, so you want to develop characters with strong internal needs. And hopefully these are going to be in conflict with their goals. So the character who is out of work and needs that job—and has motivations from being poor in childhood—if she’s got the internal need for respect, and she’s offered a menial job with no respect, now her external goals and internal needs are in conflict. She wants the job (external), but she needs respect (and won’t get it from the job). So what does she give up? She’s in conflict, which is always good stuff for fiction. How the character then resolves this conflict becomes part of your plot—and reveals this character’s true colors.
Motivations – just as with goals, internal needs have to be motivated. (Remember, fictional folks have to make sense—much more so than real people.) So this character needs an event in his or her formative years that leaves him or her with deep reasons to have these internal needs. And, again, you want to tie this motivation to deep, core issues—could be the character is compensating for a handicap, and respect isn’t just about being respected.
Characters should have such strong goals and needs that the character (and the reader) should feel as if that character’s “self” will be destroyed by giving up either the goal or need.
And then you throw in the romance (if you’re writing a romance).
Once you create your main character, now you design the love interest, and all the other characters. The love interest is someone with a conflicting goal, conflicting internal needs, and motivations that are just as deep and strong. In other words, this is both the ideal person, and the totally wrong person. This is a soul mate (and I use the definition that soul mates are those people who push all your buttons—they make you grow).
You develop goals and motivations for all characters—in other words, you never have a bad guy who is bad just because he is bad. And you look to develop goals and motivations that go beyond clichés. (Trust me, your first few ideas for goals and motivations will be cliché—that’s why they pop up so readily. As Orson Scott Card advises in Characters & Viewpoint, dig deeper.)
And, very important, you want the story’s antagonist—the person up against the protagonist—to have conflicting goals. Only the protagonist or the antagonist should be able to win the day (and for more on this, study up on Bob Mayer’s talk on Conflict Lock – he’s bestselling author and he knows what he’s talking about).
Theme – this is what helps you with all this goals and motivations stuff, and with all the secondary characters you need. If your theme is about how love heals, you’re going to need hurt characters, and folks who’ve never been hurt by love. You’ll need folks who haven’t been heeled by love—and those who have. You need all sides of the theme. And the main character is going to be at the center of that theme.
Now, with characters and theme shaping up, you can plot. Meaning you look at your main character and you keep asking—What is the worst thing that could happen to this person? You ask this many, many times and jot down the answers. What could prevent this person from getting his or her goal? What would force this person to give up his or her goal? What would push this person to the extreme to get his or her goal or meet his or her needs? Keep pushing, keep making it worse. (Action movies are great to take apart for this sort of stuff—look at Indiana Jones, and how his life just gets harder and harder and harder.)
These ideas for obstacles that the main character must overcome can then be shaped into the main turning point actions—the plot that will test your character. It will also test the main character’s relationship—the romance. You put just as much strain there as you do for any action.
As you do this, you’re coming up with events to throw at your character, but this is not the time to decide yet how your character will act—that come from knowing your character and putting your character into these bad, bad situations. In other words, you set up the obstacle course—your characters decide how to run that course. The story comes out of the characters dealing with worst case scenarios.
Two things about this—first, you need to structure the action so that tension and conflict rises. In a good story, things go from bad to worse—not the other way around. Second, you’ll develop subplots around the main plot, but it’s the main action line—the main character’s driving goal, motivations for this, and obstacles (or turning points)—that should be the main focus. The main story arc must have the main character at its heart—the main character must resolve the story (or fail at this, which makes it a tragedy). And this should be the last set of story points to be resolved. (Subplots can start sooner than the main story, but should be all wrapped up before the main story is in order to create the most satisfying story.)
Notice how all this plotting now comes out of the characters that you set up. Your characters give you your theme, they start to suggest events you’ll need in the story to block them from their goals. For example, you know the woman who need a new job is going to start off applying for new positions—and maybe that’s not so exciting, so you start her where she’s just been turned down for the 100th time. But she starts off trying to do this the easy way—that’s so your story can build and get worse. You know you’re going to make things worse for her—she’s going to be face with choices. Maybe even asked to commit murder in order to make a million dollars. But she’s not going to be asked that right away—that’s going to come after she’s been tested, and tested, and tested more. That’s going to come when she’s more than desperate. That’s going to come when she has so few other choices this extreme one seems a viable option.
Once you get the ideas and characters down in writing, you’re going to check in with a writer friend. You’re going to look at this from all angles to see if it makes sense. If it’s plausible. If every character is well motivated with strong goals. You do this because it’s too easy to think you’ve got it all buttoned up when you don’t. And you’ll find you have stuff worked out in your head that doesn’t make it onto the page—you want to always make sure to get the story on the page as close to what’s in your head.
What this means it that you won’t be coming up with cliché conflict (the heroine is kidnapped and the hero saves her)—conflict will be very specific to the characters you’ve created because it will be deeply rooted in individual pasts. You won’t be stuck with how to escalate conflict and tension, because you’ve got goals and you’re going to take away all the easy ways for that character to reach his or her goals. You won’t be caught with a romance that relies on misunderstandings or mistaken assumptions to create problems in the relationship—problems will be built into your characters.
Just keep in mind—it’s all about the characters.