Monday, March 19, 2007

Character attributes can drive plot

I'm still working on planning for ALDEN RIDGE--no new words written since the last update. But I have been thinking about one thing that I think is very useful, and that is the importance of the main character's... well, character to the plot of the work. But I'm approaching this explanation backwards.

The problem I was facing in my writing was that I just didn't empathize well enough with my main character in ALDEN RIDGE. She was interesting in many respects, and there was a strong emotional angle to her story, but somehow I still didn't want to be her. I'm all for having unsavory aspects to my major characters (and often do), but at the end of the day I can't put my whole heart into writing a main character who I just don't admire on some level.

What makes me admire a character? For me, personally, it basically boils down to the character being smart, good, and powerful in some way. Maybe you could even leave "good" off that list and I'd still admire them as an interesting anti-hero. But without smart and powerful, they just don't work for me. Your mileage may vary--and even for me, it's not like a character has to be Einstein The God Of War or something. Being "powerful" just means that the character is able to exert some measure of control over their environment. Maybe not at first, but eventually. They may not always get to set the tempo of their story, either, but sometimes they should be strong enough to on occasion. Being "smart" doesn't mean that they have to be all that educated, or a prodigy or Nobel laureate. It just means that they have to sometimes see or understand things that no one else around them does. Intelligence is usually relative.

Again, your mileage may vary, and there must be a million ways for a character to exhibit both of those traits. And as far as the "good" trait goes, I mostly mean that the character must perceive themselves as good. Even if they are actually evil, they have to have some sort of rationalization that makes them act the way they do. Evil characters who don't are nothing more than selfish, and that's not usually fun to read unless really skillfully done.

But getting back to my original point: these character characteristics can (and to some degree should) drive the plot of your story. The reason why is simple: you're supposed to be showing, not telling. So if you want your main character to be seen as smart and powerful, as I do, then you have to have some situations where these traits are exhibited. Otherwise, the only thing you can do is say "John was very smart." That doesn't work too well, because (among other reasons) readers prefer to make such judgements on their own based on observation. If the narrator tells us someone is smart, we generally take that with a huge grain of salt.

At any rate, I was working on my plans for the work, realizing that I still didn't just absolutely love my main character (though we were still friends), and also realizing that I had to do something about that. When I came up with my list of reasons I didn't absolutely love her (she was too passive, and nothing about her part in the plot screamed intelligence), I realized I need to make some plot changes. The funny thing is, though I started trying to think of sweeping adjustments to the main plot, I wound up just making some tweaks and adding to my sub-plots.

All is well now, but it just got me thinking about the myriad different ways that one can come up with a plot of a book. Sometimes even a great plot is a little bit of a byproduct of detailed, unusual characters and setting/premise. Actually, I think that might be the case more than we think. It's a lot easier to back into a unique plot that than it is to just think of one right from the start.


Rachel V. Olivier said...

Yeah, when you think about how, in real life, our own personalities sometimes make our decisions for us in our personal stories, then that makes complete sense. Whether we're passive and try not to let things bother us or aggressive and try to exert some control over our environment. That does make a huge difference.

Colleen said...

I think that we write pieces of ourselves into our characters unintentionally. We love or hate the things in our characters that we love or hate in ourselves. I agree with you that the story should unfold in a way that is true to the character. I often ask myself "how would she react to this?" which than leads the story to where it goes next.