Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Balancing Plot with Characters

I’ve found that it’s much better to let characters be themselves rather than forcing them to adhere to a specific plot.

I try to allow characters to act within the parameters of their character. One difficulty I found in my work-in-progress novel is that my protagonist does not plan or carefully consider his actions before moving forward. As I write, I am thinking through things carefully (to a degree), so at times, I set him upon a certain path and think carefully of something he could do. Except he won’t. Not unless I alter his character to be more considerate.

This brings up a dilemma – either to constantly change characters in order to satisfy a plot or to alter the plot to satisfy the characters. I think it can be much more difficult to change characters partway through a story. If a character seems stale, I will change him or her, but in doing so, I will rewrite any scenes where the character did not adhere to his or her new personality. This works okay with minor characters, but to do so with a major character could mean considerably more rewrites (or at least a close examination of the existing story).

Suppose I have the following plot idea in chapter twelve: Bill opens a door and goes inside a room. There he meets a swordsman, and he quickly kills the swordsman. Before I get to this point, I’ve really established Bill’s character in mind (and on the previous pages), and he’s a myopic coward. If I plow forward with the plot I’ve outlined, Bill breaks character (unless Bill’s method of killing doesn’t require good eyesight or bravery). If Bill stays in character, he probably dies, and that would be a horrific end to my novel, so it’s time for a plot change.

Wait, you say, isn’t a plot change a lot of work as well? Yes, it could be. So it’s up to you to identify the greater priority – keeping the character or plot the same (or possibly changing both). I prefer to keep the characters as they are as much as possible. Plot is interesting, but I have a fondness for great characters.

If you want to have character-driven stories, establish the characters you want, and let them be who they are. Form the plot around them as necessary. Be cautious about when you want characters to do something against their natures; there should be some logic behind why such a thing would occur. Don’t have a character go against his or her nature simply to fill a checkbox on the plot outline; readers will pick up on this and grimace because you took the easy way out.

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