Tag Archive | plotting from character

Plot, Character & Theme

I’m doing my Plotting from Character workshop this November and as usual before a workshop I’ve been thinking about the elements that go into the workshop–and into a story.

Too often what I see in manuscripts is that “stuff happens.” Now, that’s not bad in an action-packed story, except it can end up not being very satisfying to a reader. Ideally, the stuff that happens has something to do with the main character having tough choices that reveal the character of the character, and has even more to do with theme. So let’s start with theme.

The importance of theme is often overlooked. Theme is what the story is REALLY about–it is what is going to resonate with the reader and create a greater satisfaction. Theme is the touchstone for the writer, too. If you get lost, look to theme to get back on track. So…without theme, a story tends to wander. You might even think of theme as the core phrase or question that puts a focus into the story.

This focus helps you set up a core goal that will lead to conflict and then a crisis (or dark moment, where the protagonist must face his or her greatest weakness, and either overcome it, or not, leading to death of the old self, or in a tragic tale, the character’s death for failure.

What does this have to do with ‘plotting from character’?

With theme in place, the writer can start asking–“What characters do I need to explore this theme?” And also–“What needs to happen to face my protagonist with tough choices related to theme?” In other words, it is no longer about coming up with general stuff, but now coming up with events that will test the protagonist based around the theme, or core ideas the protagonist needs to learn.

This helps greatly in avoiding cliches, such as the heroine gets kidnapped, or the hero and heroine have a misunderstanding after the hero’s ex tells the heroine some lie about the hero. Theme and a specific character will generate a very specific story–and this brings a freshness to the story.

How do you apply all this?

Well, theme and character go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to develop just one of these, so you have to do them together. For example, if you’re story is REALLY about how there is only fear and love, and the stronger of these will overcome the other, then you know you will need a character who has deep fears to overcome, and faces the need to overcome these in order to have a great love. You’re also going to have a character who doesn’t overcome fears, and a character who is fearless. Those combinations will let you best explore that theme. With that in place, you still need to develop the characters–starting with the protagonist–so that the characters do not come across as flat (or cardboard). And you’re going to develop tougher and tougher choices for that protagonist that fit into the main turning points of the story.

This means the action of the story is going to come from your characters–from facing characters with tougher and tougher choices. Because your characters are yours, this helps you avoid any cliche action in the story. That’s plotting from character. But it’s hard to do this without some idea of theme.

Now I will say some writers know how to do this instinctively (I’m not one of them). I also hold that if you know your theme up front, it is a lot easier to weave it into the story–not with a heavy hand, but a light touch that makes the theme (and the story) stronger. Is this easy–no, not really. But it is well worth it for the reader in that you’ll end up with a stronger story that makes the reader keep thinking about that story long after the last page has been read.

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Developing an Idea or Characters?

proper-conduct-01I’m in the middle of teaching my “Plotting from Character” workshop and what always happens is that folks get frustrated. Which is actually quite normal. Learning something new is hard, and most people don’t want to really spend the time to break old habits and to the work to learn (or relearn) new ways of doing things. It takes not just persistence but also patience–with yourself and with the process. A lot of times you just have to do something over and over and over again.

I was reminded of this the other day–I’m learning something new. I’m struggling to learn how to play the mandolin. Now, the fingerings are the same as for a violin, which I used to play. But you have double the strings–and you have to pick (not bow). And eight frigging strings means one of them is always going out of tune. Took me an hour to tune it, then I broke an E string and it took me another hour to change it. Patience and persistence got be back to where I could do some chord and scale practice. It’s going to take longer before I don’t suck at it.

And that’s where I think a lot of writers have trouble. It takes patience as well as persistence to develop characters. I’ve had a few characters just show up on the page ready to go. Most of them take time and repeated work to really get them fleshed out and figured out. I had that problem in Proper Conduct–the heroine just took forever to show up. She was a difficult character all the way along, but after 100 pages she finally settled down and I was able to get her onto the page.

That’s where I see writers with less experience struggling–they jump into an idea and develop the heck out of the idea. But the characters don’t get development. It’s too easy to fall in love with an idea and forget the story is really about your characters. A great story won’t carry a book. And that’s where you end up with good writing and weak stories–and I see a lot of that in contests where there is a lot of cleverness but the characters are what my mother used to call ‘unbaked cookie dough.’

Now it is possible to overdevelop the characters–to spend too much time on details and not enough time on the main conflict and story arc. I used to do that and my characters came out flat. I’d written the life out of them. So it does take a balance.

And a lot of patience to go along with the persistence.

It’s the Characters!

tablettypeI’m just heading home from the California Dreamin’ Writers Conference, and as usual there was talk of craft and marketing, and much other stuff. Sylvia Day, of course, talked about writing the book you really, really have to write–the book you want to write. I find that best-selling writers often do that–they may be marketing smart, but they also don’t follow the market. They make it. They also write great characters, which I think is the real secret.

So how do you get great characters on the page. First, you need talent. But a few other things can help, and I’m going to cover this in detail in my Plotting from Character online workshop starting on April 1:

Twelve steps to create the story from the inside out.

  1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
  2. When looking for motivations (the why) for a character’s core need, discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés). Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  3. Create one main external goal for the main character—needs to be tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal—failure should be personally costly to the main character.)
  4. Look for the motivation for why the character needs this goal—this is strongest if it’s a specific event in the character’s formative years. (Theme will come from the main character’s needs and goals—that will be the heart of the story.) The WHY for the external goal should be WHY this person must do this and WHY now–as in most folks don’t suddenly decide to go out and catch a murderer without a strong reason WHY that person must do that and WHY they most do this NOW.
  5. Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
  6. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
  7. For a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide the main character’s need—and who has goals that are in conflict. (But make sure this person is fully developed.)
  8. Know each of your character’s sexual history.
  9. Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
  10. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character. (These can be opposing goals for what the main character wants or needs–or the same, with approaches adding conflict, or conflict from only being able to reach the goal).
  11. Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
  12. Leave room for characters to surprise you. And remember, even bad guys need love.

With all the above, play the “what if” game – what if this happens to this person? What would he or she do? Create many “what ifs” and use the “what ifs” that resonate most with you and that make life worse for the main character—test your characters.

Remember:  Character is revealed through obstacles and the character’s reaction to those obstacles as he or she tries to achieve his or her goal. That is story. Plot is the construction of the obstacles in any character’s path.