Saturday, September 7, 2013

Character or plot

A friend asked what is my greatest weakness as a writer. There are so many to choose from, yet the nature of the question eliminates a long diatribe.

As I thought about all the things that go into a good story, I wasn’t sure if the weakness is one of plot or of characterization. The two of them are inter-twined. Nathan Bransford calls them inseparable.

The problem I have with character is my people are too simple, not multi-dimensional. They don’t seem to show the growth that is supposed to accompany the lessons learned from facing an adversary.

Bransford says a compelling character is one who starts off seeming normal but events soon show personality traits that were previously unknown to them (think Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter) or someone battling internal demons. A normal person observing a crazy world also makes for a compelling character. At the heart of every compelling character is “conflict, more conflict, and still more conflict.” He says to reveal conflict through plot. What interesting character isn’t doing something? “Plot tests a character and forces them to make choices. Plot is what makes the character interesting (because the character is tested) and character is what makes the plot interesting (because we’re learning about the character).” The plot changes the character. Every compelling character starts in one place and ends up in a different one. How they get there is plot.

MJ Bush of WritingGeekery says “strong characters are complex enough to carry the story, pull in the reader, and give a sense that there’s more going on under the surface.” She has four cornerstones of strong characters (fear, a secret, a flaw, and a quirk). They help establish character dynamics and the unfolding of the plot. Major characters should have two to four of these, and are best served with all four. Fear propels the story. Without fear, readers would wonder why the MC doesn’t just ignore the problem. High stakes make for good story and fear causes the high stakes. Secrets: everybody has a dark side, which they never show anybody, and the MC has one, too. What do they have to hide and how does that clash with the external events of the story? Everybody has flaws, as well. What kinds of mistakes does the character make, and what circumstances cause the flaw to surface? Quirks are there to create symbolism for something she calls the character theme.

So, my biggest weakness is my characters. Or my plot.

(This article also posted at

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