Fixing Plot Problems and Defining Character Arcs (or, where have you been the last two months?)
I’ve had the toolkit out. The bonnet is up. I’m up to my elbows in my novel draft, but this time I’m going to find out what’s making that funny squeaking noise and I’m going to fix it. The solution: repairing the balance between plot and character. This article is about the process I’ve gone through to bring life back to my characters and through them into my plot.
When I started this website, the objective was that in two years I would a) study and write about creative writing on the site, b) write enough short stories for a collection, and c) complete a novel. I’m on track. The short stories keep on coming (I’ve even made some shortlists). I added 50,000 words to the novel in July as part of Camp Nanowrimo. But by the end of the month I found I had got a little stuck. The story was ok – it got you from A to C via B just fine – but it had begun to feel a little hollow, as if the characters were pieces I was moving around a board to get to an act 4 darkest hour out to and act 5 heroic resolution. The heart of the story had gone missing, and I didn’t know where it had gone. So for the last few weeks I’ve put everything else to one side and worked on finding it. Hence, no articles on the site, and I slight pause in objective (a). Sorry about that.
Now some of this bad feeling is just “3/4 of the way through the draft” blues. A novel is a big project and, just like a PhD thesis, you’re going to fall out of love with it a couple of times before the end. But some of the feeling is down to structural problems in the text, and it needed to be fixed.
I think the largest problem is that I decided a direction the story would go in, and then moved the characters around to fit that direction. I’m about 85,000 words in now and the characters have begun to have their own voice. And that voice is saying “erm, no, I wouldn’t do that, that doesn’t make any sense.” They are sick of going places just because I need them to. They characters should be driving the plot, not the other way around.
Of course, there’s a fallacy to this notion. Plot drives characters all the time. It has to. If you just made up a bunch of really good characters and left them too it, half your stories would finish “and they all decided this was a silly fight and went to the pub instead.” Character and plot grow together; saying that character should drive plot is not some magic panacea but rather a reminder that you have to find a way to make your glorious set pieces feel like they are a natural consequence of your character’s decisions. If you don’t, then the story will feel flat and unreal.
This problem is compounded where you have many characters. My current draft doesn’t quite reach Game of Thrones levels but, with so many people in the story, it is easy to slip into letting them serve the plot without serving themselves. Soon all the characters become homogenous and featureless.
So, how could I go about fixing this? First of all, I drew up a new list of all the characters and identified about a dozen key players: anybody who wasn’t the protagonist but went beyond being “guard who stands at the gate no. 3” and was making decisions that had a substantial impact on the story. I drew out a table of all the chapters (both written and unwritten) and charted how each of these characters moved through the story, where they were at each point, and most importantly why they were there. The “why” question needed a better answer than “because somebody needs to get eaten in chapter 12”. In order to answer it I needed to know the characters better, so, for each of them, I worked through a subset of questions that looked something like this:
- What do they want?
All of us want things. Showing what a character wants gives them direction, and gives the something the reader understands. This is both a general question (what do they want from life) and an important scene by scene question (why have they come to the general store this morning). Grounding personality in desire is richer than creating an archetype. Of course, the next question you as the writer need to answer is “why do they want this?” And that conversation starts you really thinking about who the character is. A character who wants something is a big step closer to being a real person, and not just someone for the hero to stab at the climax of chapter 23.
- What is getting in the way of them having what they want?
Conflict may or may not be necessary for good stories but it certainly helps. This doesn’t have to be a big deal. Fred is at the general store because he wants to eat a cheese omelette and there is no cheese left in the house. That isn’t end of the world stuff. But it gives you a roadmap from which the characters actions can be born. In the draft I am revising, of course, I am not starting from scratch: there is already a main plot involving a central character who has her own challenges to overcome. So this question extends into asking how the events in the story affect this character achieving what they want. Everyone lives in their own world and has their own issues to resolve; we are all living our own main plots, and their interaction creates vibrancy. Fred wants to buy cheese, but Jo knows her girlfriend will be popping by to pick some up later and doesn’t want to sell it. Conflict is exciting.
- What personal qualities do they have that make this problem particularly difficult?
Good stories often encompass elements of personal growth, to be sure, but the key element of this question is to start thinking about who the character is as a person and how their individual strengths and weaknesses interact with what is going on around them. This leads you to an important question: what is it that makes this character different from all the others? And how does that change the way they deal with the problems around them? It is more dramatically rich if who they are as a person is getting in the way of what they want, because that means to succeed they are going to have to change.
- What will be the consequences if they don’t solve this problem?
Clear consequences are essential if the reader is going to understand what is going on. Furthermore, consequences bring weight and therefore dramatic impact. This can lead to a drama arms race (if she doesn’t get her sandwich back the world will end!!!), but it doesn’t have to – if you can make it clear why the consequences are important to the character, then the reader will be able to sympathise. A story about losing your boyfriend or your way home from work can be just as powerful as one about losing THE ENTIRE WORLD TO FIREY ARMAGEDDON! Of course, the character does not have to have correctly assessed the consequences of their actions – but you the writer need to have a handle on what they want and what they think will happen if they don’t get it, and the reader needs some sort of insight into this before they will care about the character.
- What do they do about it?
This ties all the character stuff back into the plot. As I said, this is work I’ve been doing on a novel that is already mostly written – so the key was to look back at what had happened and say “would this character really do this?” If it doesn’t make any sense for the character to follow the plot you have written, then something has to change: revise the character to fit the plot, or change the plot to fit what the character will do. I have made both sorts of changes as part of this rework. What is crucial is that your characters have agency: don’t make them passive receptors of the plot. Get them doing stuff!
- How does that work out? Does this change them? How do they respond?
These last questions are all about change. I’m sure a beautiful story can be written about characters who do not change and for whom nothing changes, but I’m not especially interested in writing it. Ok, now that I’ve said that I kind of am interested in writing it (did Beckett get there first?), but that is not this story. This story is about the arrival of a protagonist who arrives like a comet and wrecks everything they touch. So it pays to think carefully about how each individual is hurt, and then drive the conclusions from this hurt. A story that makes no difference to anyone usually feels kind of “meh” at the end. So you need to understand how your story has changed things for people so that you can show the reader that your story matters.
Now you might argue that this approach is rather formulaic, and that the questions are not especially sophisticated. But they did help unblock me and start bring emotional depth back to the centre of my story, mostly by serving as a good kicking off point for brainstorming my characters. Over the course of the last weeks, it has turned into a 10,000 word document, filled with cross references for changes and addendums to be made to the text. I produced tables showing where each character was at each moment, and most importantly why they were there from their own point of view. This, inevitably, resulted in significant changes to the plot. Good changes. I hope.
It is an old cliché that everyone is the hero of their own story. I wanted to get back to the point where, if the story were told from the perspective of any one of the characters, the journey they made through the story would make sense. I wanted to make sure that character motivations and problems were clear, so that the reader can understand the consequences and follow their reasoning as the story developed. Having identified these elements, I have been working back through my plan looking for the places where I can show these feelings, expose these conflicts and illustrate their consequences.
This whole process might not have been necessary if I’d started out with a more character driven approach. As I said, I planned and began this book before I started working on the website and writing all those short stories, and I think I would do things very differently now. I think the next book I write will focus on a smaller cast list! But the process of systematic surgery I have undergone has proved useful because I had reached a point where the text felt, well, dead, and I needed to figure out where the life had gone. The precise questions may not even matter that much. But you need to understand why your characters do the things they do, and the answers need to be consistent with who they are. Coming back to each scene in the book with a clear idea of what each character wants has brought life back into the story.
Now I just need to drink enough coffee to get life back into me, so I can finish the bloody book!
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