Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Plot Problem Is A Character Problem

If a story seems a little dull, if the plot doesn’t seem to be very engaging, you could deal with it by having more stuff happen, more people running around, new characters, additional subplots and so forth.

Usually, though, the problem is not in what’s happening, the problem is who’s doing it.

If the character hasn’t been created with enough depth, what they get up to will feel arbitrary and unsatisfying. If the plot isn’t holding people’s attention, the first place you should look is character.

Let’s say my story is about a man who sees a murder being committed. He goes to the police but then he becomes a target for the murderer.

Pretty standard sort of story. Maybe seeing the murder will be a suspenseful scene. And once the murderer comes after him, things will probably be quite exciting. 

But what about the bits in between? How do we stop all the setting up we need to do from feeling mechanical and perfunctory? It’s part of the story, you can’t just skip it.

Thing is, at the moment our character is just ‘a guy’. We don’t really know anything about him. 

Who would be a good person to have witness a murder? Maybe someone who is also committing a crime at the time, say a thief. So he can’t really go to the police. Come to think of it, why would he care anyway? Well, let’s say there’s a big reward. He’s a thief, he likes money. But the police might ask awkward questions.

Maybe he can tell a buddy what he saw, the buddy can tell the cops, collect the reward and they split the money. But then the murderer targets the buddy and kills him. Now our thief is pissed off and feeling guilty...

I don’t know how many movies I just ripped off there, but as I developed my main character, the story automatically developed a more interesting plot.

He went from being some guy to being a thief who has a close buddy, he feels guilt and wants revenge, plus he has a particular set of skills and contacts in the underworld. The options for what happens have become more specific but also more interesting.

On the other hand, maybe I start with an MC already in mind. Let’s say I’m getting driving lessons and my driving instructor is a bit of a character. I think he’d make a good lead in a story. I already know what he looks like and the kind of sarcastic jokes he makes, all I need to do is slot him in fully formed.

So, I come up with a story. A driving instructor is giving lessons to a woman, but she insists on being picked up at strange times from strange places. Eventually she confides in him that she’s learning to drive in secret so she can get away from her abusive husband. If he found out, he’d kill her.

Our hero is glad to be of help. But then one day she misses her lesson and then she turns up on the news dead, her husband crying and vowing to hunt down her killer.

I could probably come up with a reason for the instructor to go to the police or even confront the husband directly, but I could just as easily not. Why wouldn’t he learn of her death and just shrug his shoulders? Making him go after the husband because that’s what I want him to do won’t necessarily make sense.

Why would he pursue the guy? Maybe he’s an ex-cop who was kicked off the force for sticking his nose where he shouldn’t and driving instructor was the only job he could get. Maybe the husband is connected to organised crime, the same crime organisation that arranged to have him fired.

That’s a little corny, I know, but my point is I can still keep the qualities of my real life driving instructor, and work in more specific qualities that make his actions more plausible.

But it’s worth bearing in mind that the things I’m coming up with are designed to be relevant to the type of story I’m telling. That’s not by accident. I’m also coming up with other characteristics and rejecting them.

My driving instructor could have been captain of his high school football team, loves pickles on everything and have a mad crush on Dame Helen Mirren, but those things won’t have much effect on how he deals with his dead student.

I could keep all those little details if they appeal to me, certainly they’ll give me a fuller picture of who this guy is, but I’m aware that they won’t make the plot any more interesting—so I need to come up with something else, either instead of or as well as.

Or at least, I can’t see how it would affect the story. You might see it differently.

If the story was about a girl in love with a guy who rejects her, and she was captain of her high school basketball team where she was infamous for playing dirty and winning at any cost, then that approach to life could very well affect how she behaves as a grown up.

The important thing is to add depth through things that change the way a character behaves. You can also add other details, but it’s the behavioural idiosyncrasies that are going to help the story become more interesting. If it doesn’t affect their actions, it won’t impact the plot.
If you found this post vaguely interesting, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

All of those things add new twists and depths to both the character and plot.
And if you could pull it off, 'pickling' the plot might work as well!

Diane Carlisle said...

At my last workshop I learned something new that I'd never thought about. Each and every character in your story must have an objective, something they desire, and each scene must drive your characters to seek change in the direction of their own motives.

When there are different objectives for every character, then the characters will drive a good bit of the story.


My MC is trying to solve a mystery and she discloses her findings to her friend. Overheard by another colleague, she is unaware of this eavesdropper's desire to keep her from solving the mystery. Now we interject complexity and that eavesdropper must now do something to prevent the resolution from occurring.

CBame13 said...

I love creating background details but I am so bad about actually making any of them relevant. Interesting points about plot and character interrelationships. Will definitely have to keep that in mind moving forward.

Mark Means said...

This is the problem I've been running into with my story. I don't think the main character is engaging or interesting enough. Plenty of neat stuff happening in the story, but I keep feeling like the mc is just so wooden.

I need to flesh out the character more and add some honest reactions to the story.

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Alex - I like pickles.

@Diane - it can be hard to remember to give everyone a life.

@CBame - it's a skill to make it look natural but secretly have it all connect up without being obvious. Some people are better at it than others.

mooderino said...

@Mark - glad to be of help!

Al Diaz said...

I had this problem at the beginning of my story. Then I twisted the characters and it helped the plot, but I realized it does make my brain sweat and brain cells died by exhaustion. Great lesson.

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Plot problem is a character problem? It seems so obvious, yet the fact it needs to be told shows how many out there are clueless about storytelling. Good of you to set us straight moody!

Anonymous said...

I'm more of a let the narrative come from the character kind of writer. That is, within the story the character can take the narrative anywhere they want because the story is really about how THAT character deals with THIS situation.

However, the issue here isn't making the MC's actions plausible, it's understanding the thinking of the woman since, once she has her license, the abusive husband would know she must have had driving lessons. All characters must behave in ways that make sense within their perception of the world so what made her think she could learn to drive and her husband never find out about it?

mooderino said...

@Al - how good can a story be without a little brain sweat?

@Michael - glad to do it!

@Colin - well, I imagine she planned to get in the car and drive away.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I felt that my story tended to fall flat in the middle, I added a few twists, introduced two new characters and it perked up pretty well.

Charmaine Clancy said...

True! I forget most details of plot lines from stories I've read, but if it was good I always remember the character.

Alana said...

Interesting take. I find that so many people tell writers to move the story along and make sure things are happening that things like characters may be forgotten along the way, or made to feel less important. Your argument about character development is spot on. And it makes me very interested to read more from you - this post feels like your mind is a fire cracker, spouting bright ideas at every angle!

One of my all time favorite authors is John Irving, and I think that the time he invests in his characters is precisely what makes the stories stick out in my mind.

Very nice post.

~Alana (stopping by via A to Z - be back soon!)

mooderino said...

@Rachna - the middle is the trickiest part to keep interesting in my experience.

@Charmaine - you can always get god story out of good characters.

@Alana - cheers.

Anonymous said...

@Colin - well, I imagine she planned to get in the car and drive away.

Err, isn't that a somewhat risky and protracted get-away plan? I'm assuming you're using this story as an example only, but it does reveal the necessity of making sure that ALL your characters actions are credible and not just focusing on the MC. After all, logically this woman would just buy a bus ticket or hire a 'man-with-a-van' and make her escape.

mooderino said...

"Err, isn't that a somewhat risky and protracted get-away plan?"

I don't think so. Access to a vehicle day or night would seem a valid desire for a woman in her predicament. Men of this type tend to be very persistent (according to Hollywood, anyway).

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Character development and staying true to that character has always help in my writing. Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

mooderino said...

@Kathi - Cheers.

Rusty Webb said...

Great advice... I can think of so many stories I abandoned because they just weren't working. Thinking over them now I can see how many of them had the issue where the guy was just... well, a guy. Of course, those are pretty old stories, I'd like to think I can do a bit better now, but still... great stuff here.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - Of course once you realise the problem you still have to figure out how to fix it.

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