Matthew Warner

Finding a Plot for Your Characters

A friend just asked me this interesting question about writing craft, and I thought I’d share my answer publicly:

Without overwhelming you with specifics, what the heck do you do when you have characters and character dynamic all fleshed, but don’t have a plot?

That’s great you’ve made it this far. I think the next step is to answer a question about each character: what is the most emotionally significant event of his/her life? Events are significant because they change us. That’s probably the event — in other words, the plot — you should write about.

This goes back to that five-dollar phrase writers bandy about: character arc. It’s the principle that your character should be changed by the end of the story. If the event(s) of your story isn’t important to the character, then it won’t be important to the reader/viewer, either. In a nutshell, this was the guiding principle I used to pull my ass out of a sling during the writing of No Outlet, a saga I detailed last fall at Horror World. And, just so your character won’t be a passive recipient of these events, it’s important the character should affect the events in turn. In other words: events change characters, and characters change events.

Let’s assume you understand these principles but are still stymied. You haven’t a clue what the
Really Big Event is in your character’s life, let alone how that relates to the other characters you’ve invented. Maybe then it’s time for some writing exercises. A writer friend of mine suggests you just start writing some scenes between these characters. The scenes may or may not make into in your final story, but that’s not the point. The point is to get to know your characters.

Writing scenes between them forces you to make some decisions. Where does the scene take place? What are they talking (or even better, arguing) about? This is just a private writing exercise, so don’t stress out about it. If you’re worried about how to make the prose pretty (assuming you’re writing prose), then don’t write prose; try just writing their dialogue like a courtroom transcript. You can also try having them talk directly to you, the writer. What would your character say or do if he walked into your office? Try writing a script of that conversation. However you accomplish it, having your characters interact with each other or you is a great way to observe them. Something interesting will always pop out of their mouths and provide a clue to their motivations and thus your plot.

The final consideration will be how to structure your plot, and the best advice I’ve absorbed in that realm comes from Syd Field’s classic book, Screenplay. His “plot paradigm” describes how you should pace your story: when character goals should be defined, obstructed, and resolved. I think it boils down to that you should define your character goals and foils as early as possible and resolve them as late as possible. And also that the character’s journey toward those goals isn’t a passive one where events simply happen to him/her. Remember, events change characters, and characters change events.

I hope this helps. Please ask me questions if it doesn’t!