Love them or hate them, they are essential to any good story.
Some writers start with them, and find an intriguing individual to cast as their main player to whom everything will happen. Others create a scenario and design the perfect stooge for their trap. Me, I’m a big fan of combining these and imagining a scene with a single character in a particularly tough moment, then I go from there – either following the character or the consequences of their actions. I used to think of them as two separate things. But it was when I started to really understand that plot is just what happens to the character that my stories really started to make sense to me.
When we’re conceiving of our novels we often separate character and plot in our minds to make things easier to imagine. This is all well and good in the drafting stage, but at some point we have to match them up to make sure that our readers believe the actions our character takes and that these directly contribute to the story they are reading, and we are writing.
But how to do this?
One of the key things I’ve discovered is to dig deep into a characters’ desires and wants. I have to find my protagonist’s (and often many of the rest of my casts’) motivators to understand their actions well enough to write them. This is often what drives the plot forward. If you’ve ever read a book where one character does something and you just can’t see them doing it – that’s because the writer has probably misplaced the link between character and plot.
‘Why?‘ is my favourite question when writing. I think it’s by far the most valuable question you can ask at any point in your story. We should be able to identify a decision that our character is making and explain exactly why it is that they want whatever they are invested in. It doesn’t have to be glaringly obvious, but readers seek to understand characters through actions. So it’s worthwhile to make sure that they’re consistent – and visible – throughout a story.
For example; imagine your partner, parent, sibling, or closest friend – could they guess what you might do in any given situation based on how well they know you? Readers, especially at the start of a story, like a bit of this to help them get comfortable with the characters, so they can relate to them or they can at least feel they understand them.
Of course, we don’t want readers to expect certain plot points and for the story to become too predictable. So, I always try and give my characters a chance to act spontaneously at some point. As the writer, I believe it’s our job to force the character to made a decision somehow – give them limited time, or two bad options, or make it seem like there is NO other option then have them pull another possibility out of the bag!
Not as hard as it sounds…
Believe it or not, this isn’t as hard as it sounds. If you know your character well enough they should be full of contradictions – just like real people. How some think it’s morally reprehensible to eat meat, yet they give in to their pregnancy hormones for a sneaky burger. Someone might be against the death penalty, until someone they love is killed. A man might not believe in love at first sight, until it happens to him!
I think the best stories are those ones where the writer has figured out the breaking point of the character – where their motivations and beliefs can be compromised, and then the character has no choice but to reassess them. It’s a great way to entice readers into wanting to know more, and they’ll empathise with a character’s contradictions because they recognise aspects of themselves in your characters.
The Write CatalysT:
What is your character’s ‘until…’ moment?
Where they believe or behave a certain way until….?
This is a significant moment in your novel, so make sure you don’t skip over it. From this point they might question everything they thought they knew, and it will likely disorient and scare them. This is the moment that readers want to see: your character is changing, and from this point they are no longer the same character as the one in the beginning of the novel.