Author’s Note: This post was originally featured on my old blog. If you’ve followed the link from there to here, welcome!
So NaNoWriMo has again come and gone, and after a much deserved break (from writing, at least – I’m really behind in my list of submissions), I’m looking at rewriting my novel. It always seems that no matter how much I plot and plan, no matter how many outlines I create, I don’t discover the ‘real’ story until I’m done with my first draft.
Now, more informed about my characters and their world, I’m starting to create a second outline that’s almost unrecognizable from the one I had when NaNoWriMo started. This time, I want to really make sure I put my characters through hell – all for the sake of the story, of course.
In her writing guide, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected, Jessica Page Morrell asks us, “What is the worst thing that can happen to your characters? There is your plot point.”
It’s a valid statement, but I’d like to qualify it a bit. After all, there are leagues and leagues of awful things that are way too outlandish for your story – Their entire family could be suddenly eaten by a school of flying hammerhead sharks, for example, or a distant cousin might go crazy and hold them hostage at gun point. Heck, a giant comet could hit the Earth (or whatever planet they’re on) and wipe out the entire population. These events would all be pretty traumatic to live through, but (probably) have nothing to do with your plot. At best, over-the-top, unrelated plot points like these are marks of an inexperienced writer; at worst, they’re just plain cop-outs.
So let me amend Morrell’s statement : A plot point is the worst thing that can happen relative to the story and characters.
But what does that mean? It means that your characters’ desires, loves, and fears should drive and dictate your plot.
To really make your characters suffer (you’re starting to enjoy this a little, aren’t you?), you’ll need to know a few things about them first. Here are the questions I answered last night to help myself decide if my plot was sufficiently excruciating for my characters:
- What does your character (think they) want the most, and why can’t they have it?
Let them think they’re going to have it, and then take it away from them. Make them work for it, suffer for it. Maybe they’ll achieve their goal in the end, but maybe they won’t. Certainly don’t make it easy on them.
Another way to think about this question is, what drives your character and acts as a catalyst for their actions?
- Who/what do they love most?
Another way to think of this question is what does the character have to lose? It is your job to separate the character from this person/thing, or to put this person/thing in jeopardy.
Sometimes the character will realize how important this love is to them –they know what they have to lose. More often, they are so blinded by their desire for the thing named in question 1 that they don’t realize it until their love is taken away. Often, they lose the thing they love in pursuit of their desire.
- What is their fatal character flaw?
First of all, every character has flaws. Flaws are what makes realistic, 3-dimensional characters. Flaws are what make our characters compelling.
Common flaws include things like pride, vanity, anger, lack of self-control, etc.
Often it’s this flaw that makes them pursue whatever it is they want in question 1, and they lose whatever they love in question 2 in that pursuit.
For example, in Hamlet, the title character wants revenge for his father’s murder. Thinking about it consumes him. Finally he loses his love, Ophelia, first to madness, than to death. If he hadn’t been so preoccupied in his schemes, he might have saved her.
Often, it’s this character flaw that gets them into trouble in the first place, like the common man, whose CF is anger, who insults a king, and is forced to go on a dangerous quest in order to save his own life.
- What are they afraid of? What is their biggest fear?
List all their fears and phobias, from the psychological (example: fear of abandonment, fear of not being in control, etc), to the physical (afraid of bodily harm to themselves or a loved one), and finally, the trivial (spiders, snakes, etc.)
Make them face and overcome these fears as often as possible. Remember – Indiana Jones was more afraid of snakes than of death!
- What is the best thing that could happen to them?
Never, under any circumstances, let this thing happen – at least not until the end of the story. And maybe not even then.
- Relative to the above answers, what are the worst things that could happen to them? List at least five.
These are your plot points.
Not all of the above answers will play an equal role in the plot – it all depends on the specific story in question.
It’s also important to note that the answers to these questions might (and should) change throughout the story. The thief who wanted nothing more in Act 1 than to steal enough food to stay alive might realize in Act 2 that he’s the only one who can save the kingdom from an evil King. Characters’ priorities will shift, just like they do for real-life people. It’s important to re-assess these questions whenever you feel your protagonist (or antagonist) has undergone some character growth.
Answer the above questions for all your protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters. Make a note whenever one character’s interests conflict with another’s. Play up these conflicts in your writing.
Want to know more about character motivation? Check out this post on the difference between character desires and character goals!