On April 7, 2010 EquusFerusCaballus, now known as Marmaladeland, wrote, Which is a more important element in a story: character development or plot? If you have good characters, should you go right ahead and bend a story to fit them, or wait until a better one comes along to click? If your plot is excellent, but the characters are as believable as purple unicorn turtles, should you write anyway?
Plot and character are as entwined as ivy on a trellis, and I can’t say which would be ivy and which trellis. Or the chicken and the egg might be a better analogy. It doesn’t matter which came first; you can’t have one without the other. They’re equally important.
Marmaladeland, it is almost always a major no-no to force characters to behave a certain way because of plot. I say almost because there are no absolutes in fiction writing. Making a mean character suddenly nice, for instance, just for plot reasons is a good way to get those purple-unicorn-turtle characters.
I’ve probably said before that I’m more plot oriented than character driven. I start with an idea and then invent characters who will fulfill the idea and go with it naturally. But if you have characters who interest you and want to follow them, that’s fine too. Legions of writers work this way, and I wouldn’t call their method bending the story in a bad way.
Suppose you have a main character, Sandra, fifteen years old, the most kindhearted person in the world. It would wound her to hurt someone, even in the tiniest way, but she worries, with good reason, about being taken advantage of. Let’s throw in also that she has trouble making decisions and she’s highly emotional, cries easily, laughs easily, angers easily and says things she regrets.
A little of her history: She’s new at Cloverleaf High School, pretty, wears the right clothes, is socially comfortable. But at her last school her best friend betrayed her, took advantage of her kindness, and she isn’t over it. What she wants most at the new school is a friend she feels close to and can trust.
Now let’s picture a boy, Drew, also fifteen, short for his age, who gets picked on by other kids, partly for his size and partly because he’s so serious. He doesn’t fight back or laugh off the attacks, but he hates being ridiculed. Let’s say he loves music and can play piano, guitar, and drums.
I’ll add one more character, Liza, fifteen too, who is over-friendly. She flatters people and sometimes puts herself down by way of comparison, as in, “You’re brilliant. I wish I had half your brains,” or “You have such a fashion sense. I never know what to put together with what.” An unrecognized part of Liza’s mind hates the people she flatters and hates herself for having to do it.
Now we have to imagine a situation. It doesn’t have to be that much of a situation, because this is a character-driven story. Suppose the three kids are in the drama club, and they’ve been cast in a one-act play together. Sandra sees Liza as a possible friend, and she’s observed Drew being picked on and wants to help him.
Suppose Liza is the best actor of the three. She could help the other two, but she can’t put herself forward this way. Sandra and Drew are astute and find Liza condescending, even though she doesn’t mean to be.
Here’s the prompt: Imagine a setting where your scene takes place. Write the first rehearsal, keeping the characters true to themselves. Continue the story if it interests you. Don’t decide ahead of time that you do or don’t want Sandra and Liza to wind up as friends and one of them with Drew as a boyfriend, or any other outcome. Don’t twist anybody to do anything. If one or more of them changes in the course of the story, make clear how the change came about.
Now for a plot-driven story, the kind I do write. The clearest example in my books is in my short comic novel, The Princess Test, which is based on “The Princess and the Pea.” In that book I took the same approach as the one I wrote about last week. I asked questions and found two major ones: Who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses? And how is this a test of princessness?
The first question is the big character one. I don’t think anyone could really feel that pea, but there are probably many approaches to a solution. For example, the princess could have long-distance hearing (this is fantasy) and have overheard the king and queen planning the test. Or she could be a paranoid princess and tear her chamber apart, hunting for something amiss and finding the pea.
If you remember the story in detail, the successful princess doesn’t have to know she slept on a pea. She has only to have a bad night’s sleep, so she can simply be an insomniac. But I didn’t go that way. I made her not a princess at all. Lorelei is a supremely good-natured blacksmith’s daughter who’s highly sensitive and allergic to almost everything. If the mattresses aren’t entirely made of swans’ feathers and the sheets aren’t silk with exactly the right thread count, she is certain to toss and turn till dawn. And maybe the pea will add to her discomfort.
Then there was the lesser question of how to get her to the castle soaking wet in the middle of the night. Ordinarily she wouldn’t be outside after dark and certainly not in the rain. Lorelei’s mother died when Lorelei was fourteen, and the blacksmith had to hire a maid, Trudy, because Lorelei is useless around the cottage. Trudy hates Lorelei for her general uselessness and plots to lose her in the forest. Hence the late-night drenching.
Earlier, the prince has met Lorelei when he was out for a ride, and he’s fallen for her and she for him. As for the king and queen, since this is a very silly tale, they get by just by being silly and adoring their son and wanting the best for him.
The point is, the characters behave according to their natures all the way through, because I’ve chosen those natures for the roles they have to play. To take a deeper example, in Ella Enchanted, I made Ella spunky so that she could have a shot at overcoming the curse of obedience.
Here are two plot-based prompts:
• Three students discover (you make up how) that their popular middle school principal is embezzling part of their school’s state funding. The money is supposed to be used to build a new library, and he has hired a construction company that will skimp on materials. The building won't be safe, but the company and the principal will split the money that will be saved. Exposing the principal isn’t easy. They’re just kids, and he’s been principal for fifteen years. Who are the students? What qualities do they have that make them able to succeed? What qualities do they have that trip them up? Write the story.
• Going back to fairy tales, seems to me that the characters in “Rumplestiltskin” need work. The father boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold when she can’t. The king says he’s going to marry her if she can, execute her if she can’t. The daughter does little more than wring her hands. Rumplestiltskin wants the child and then gives the queen an extra chance to keep him. Who are these characters? Explain why they behave as they do. Flesh them out in a story without changing the outcome (unless you decide to).
I loved the discussion that followed the last post. If you want to share thoughts, please do. But first write, so you don’t lose the writing energy. Have fun and save what you write!