Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fitting the Character to the Story

Know what drives your characters. Use that.
Today I'd like to talk about a pet peeve of mine: characters who do things that make little or no sense simply for the advancement of plot.

Characters + Plot

If you find yourself having to move your character around in the book like a puppet, pulling strings and forcing actions that don't make logical sense or seem like cop-outs to your readers, then you need to adjust either 1) your story or 2) your character. 

How should the writer handle such a situation in which they need to make a character do something without just, well, making them do it? First, you need to start with your character's personality.

Who is your character?

Would would your character do in this situation, and how is that different than if another person were in the same situation? What motivates your character? What do they want? What are they like?

The story and main characters should flow together in harmony. You shouldn’t be able to have one without the other. The character’s personality, temperament, and motivation should have a direct effect on how that character will behave within the plot.

 Writing exercise ...
Here's an exercise to try--swap the main characters from two of your WIPs ... what happens? What is different about the books?

Hopefully a lot. Your character and his or her personality should affect the flow of the story somehow.

For example, my character Briand from DRAGONSAYER is impulsive, defensive, and tomboyish. Shana, a main character from another MS I'm writing, is calm, pensive, and calculating. In Shana’s story, she is sentenced to six years in a mining colony, but before her sentence can be carried out she is offered a job as a spy in the queen’s court in exchange for her eventual freedom. If Briand was dropped into this circumstance instead of Shana, she would most certainly get into a knife fight, blow her cover, and run away. But Shana takes the job and does it well because this is the sort of person she is, not just because I, as the writer, forced her character to do so.

In Briand’s story, she is hated outcast living in her uncle’s house. She's constantly getting into trouble and she's about to be shipped off to an apprenticeship as punishment, which sets in motion the rest of the events of the story. Shana, being the practical, quiet, clever person that she is, would not have made Briand’s mistakes. And without Briand’s impulsive and troublesome behavior getting her into one scrape after another, we wouldn’t have the story at all. 


Character and story should be inseparable. Make the story fit the character, and the character fit the story. This might mean that as you write your story and further discover who your characters are (if you're an in-advance plotter, that is) you're going to have to make some changes to your plot along the way. But don't worry about that now. Be flexible. Allow your plot to unfold organically. Just don't make characters do things for no reason. Let their motivations come from who they are.

Don't make characters do things just because you need them to. If that's the case, you probably still have some adjusting to do somewhere else in the flow of the story.

"Plot springs from character ..." ~ Anne Lamott


  1. Great food for thought. It's definitely got me considering a plot point in my WIP.

  2. I wrote it because I was having to consider the same for my WIP ... good luck to us both, I guess :-)

  3. great advice! sometimes it's hard to get a handle on some characters... i like that you said to let them evolve organically and fix it later!


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