Plotting from Character

We’ve all read it (and written it)–that scene where the heroine does something really stupid because the plot needs her to be at risk. Or what about that moment when you can’t think what happens next–say, right after the heroine and hero make love for the first time–and all you can come up with is them bickering over a misunderstanding because you need conflict.

Contrived. That’s how those scenes read. But there’s a better way to create a tighter, more believable story. By plotting from character.

To do this, you create the action (or beats) for your story from the inside out. Your characters will come across as well motivated, and this’ll give you some great plot twists because they come from character not cliché.

To start on the inside, start at the deepest point: for every character in your story (hero, heroine, secondary folks and villains) find out that person’s core need. This goes beyond a tangible goal, such as to be rich. This is what Debra Dixon in Goal, Motivation, Conflict calls a motivating force. For example, maybe the heroine needs a place to belong, because she grew up with an alcoholic father and her parents’ divorce when she was twelve left her feeling she didn’t fit in anywhere. As you can see, when you identify this core need, you also need a reason for how it arose.

Orson Scott Card in Character and Viewpoint recommends that when looking for motivations for your character’s core need discard the first two or three ideas. These impulses pop up because they’re overused–you’ve seen them a lot. As in, the hero doesn’t want to get married because a woman betrayed him. Instead, stretch a little.

Maybe you start with a hero betrayed by a woman–but how did he end up with a woman who’d dump him? Maybe he’s deeply insecure due to having grown up short and fat (before he shot up to six foot and trimmed down), so he picks women who’ll leave him because it reinforces his self-image. Or maybe he had a repressive childhood and flaky women represent a freedom he craves–but they also leave him. Or maybe he grew up a foster kid and has thick walls about commitment, so women end up “dumping” him because he’s not emotionally available.

As you dig deeper, you’ll get a more complex character. This means a stronger plot. An important factor is that core needs developed in early years always resonate the strongest with readers, creating the most sympathetic characters.

Once you have the core need and why it’s there, now set up a potential mate who can’t provide that need, but who is still attracted to that person and by that person.

Let’s pick up with that heroine who wants a house because of the ‘belonging’ it represents. This means we need a house in the story. And we need to hook her up with someone who doesn’t want to belong. So how about that hero who’s looking for freedom (and has been looking for it in flaky women who leave him). Give them both a house–a join inheritance–and now they’re ready to clash. She wants it for a home. He wants the money from it for the freedom it’ll buy him.

Now we have internal and external conflict going–and the start of a plot. Time to go back to your characters (instead of to outside situations or actions).

Do your characters recognize their needs and motivations, or are these unacknowledged?

Maybe the heroine knows she wants a house–does she know why? Let’s say we go with her knowing she wants to belong–how do we add conflict? Have her hate this weakness. She’s independent, strong, and successful–and this need irritates her. It’s a weakness. Now she’s in conflict with herself.

What about if she doesn’t know she has this need? How to increase the pressure? Maybe she has trouble explaining her attachment to this house–it’s only a feeling. And this embarrasses her. The hero’s frustrated with her lack of communication, and she resents him pushing her for answers.

Notice that either approach creates conflict, but also creates two different people. That’s going to mean two different stories. Make your choices based on what works for you. Repeat this with all your characters, but particularly focus on your main characters.

Just as you think about what’s going to keep your hero and heroine apart, what personality traits are going to pull them together? Go beyond he’s hot and she’s sexy. These two need to click emotionally, mentally and on levels beyond physical.

Maybe she makes him laugh–she’s spontaneous without being a total flake. That’s a hint she’s got the potential to satisfy that basic need of his–but there’s a journey past his baggage to get to a relationship that works.

For her, maybe he’s the version of her father she remembers from before her childhood fell apart. Maybe she gets a little swept up with his dreams. Again, the reader need hints–not clubs over the head, hints–that somehow these two can satisfy the basic need in each other. Or perhaps the character will grow past this need.

Keep layering. Add traits that are strengths and ones that are weaknesses, make them compliment and contrast to the other person. Maybe he’s good with fixing things–nice potential here to have his shirt off as he hammers nails–but he’s short tempered. Maybe she’s patient and creative, but procrastinates. Can you start to see scenes for how these traits clash? Or work together? Use these characteristics to jot down scene ideas of how you’ll show these traits in action–that’s story.

Four things are helpful in plotting this way:

1) Give every character a secret. This may or may not come out. Either way, it shapes the character. This could be a secret fear, sexual fantasy, hidden lie, or a guilty pleasure.

2) Leave room for characters to surprise you. If a character goes off in some direction, let ’em. It’ll keep the writing fresh for you and the reader.

3) Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. In a romance, both the hero and the heroine will have to move from a person for whom a relationship is not possible. However, one character will have the greatest growth–that character should be the focus of the book. Build the story around that person.

4) Know your main characters’ sexual histories. Your hero and heroine need to be compatible sexually, so it’s good to know how they complement each other, and how there might be conflict in experience, comfort zones, and willingness to experiment.

With all this brewing, you also need a clear goal for each character. Something that connects to that core need you found. Character goals must put the two characters in conflict, but there are two approaches.

Either have the goals be opposite–she wants to keep the house, he wants to sell it, or she wants a family, he wants no responsibility, and so on. Or give them the same goal and make the conflict come from each person’s approach to achieving it. As in, they both want to sell the house, but he’s knocking out walls while she’s trying to paint them. Or her plan for a family is no plan at all, while he’s got it mapped out with travel for five years, then marriage, a house, and two kids spread three years apart. This is a great way to create sizzle because it seems as if the complimentary goals ought to work, but they keep clashing.

With your characters developing, now we’re ready to shape the scenes to give us the four main points of the book. You’ll need the first turning point, mid-point, third turning point (sometimes called the third act dark moment), and resolution (where the main character realizes that he or she has changed). In a romance, the resolution is also where the reader sees that the hero and heroine have moved to where a deeper relationship is possible.

This is a good time to play the “what if” game.

Two simple rules–start every sentence with “what if.” Then think of the worst thing that could happen to this person and jot it down.

What if the heroine has her sense of not belonging thrown into her face by her being…fired…asked to leave her favorite club…ostracized by the local community?

What if the hero has his freedom taken from him by being…thrown in jail for violating an obscure city law…saddled with a house that can’t be sold due a sudden drop in the market…faced with a baby that’s dumped on him?

This is where you bring in outside events and actions to bounce the “what ifs” off your characters’ core needs and goals. Come up with situations to strip away every defense a character has–pound away at their needs. Now is the time to layer on external conflict to increase the internal conflict you’ve been creating with character development.

Use the “what ifs” that resonate with you. The ones that make you chuckle or make you think ‘I can’t do that to that poor person.’ Test each plot point against the questions of would this person really do this, think this, feel this way?

As you jot down scenes and continue plotting, keep building on your characters’ feelings, actions and reactions. Stay true to your characters, be honest with them, respect them, find something to like in each of them, find something shameful, find something to love. Trust your characters. Let them tell the story they want to tell.

2 thoughts on “Plotting from Character

  1. I found this article of great use to me. I have always plotted by actions, but have always felt something was missing. I often stopped writing the story because it didn’t gel. Now I’ll try repotting some of those stories by character. I can visualise lots of rewrting coming up.

  2. Hi, I know this is an old post and all, but I just wanted to say that I liked it. It made me think about character creation from a different point of view, and then (this is the part I found really helpful) gave examples and showed me where to take it and how to go about doing it. So, thanks.


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