Thursday, January 17, 2013

Marrying Plot and Character

Do you, Plot, take Character to be
your lawfully wedded concept?
We've long held that a story is that baby produced when plot and character get together and raise a family. 

Think of all the great stories you remember vividly. Now think about why you remember them so well. Chances are it's because the characters and the plots are a perfect mess of (overused word alert) synergy, or as we like to think of it, a marriage. 

But how does one make that marriage work? We went to a few of our favorite creators to find out.

How important to you are plot and character? Do you develop them separately or simultaneously as you work on a story?

James Ritchey III: Character informs plot, plot strengthens character -- if it doesn't you're doing it wrong. I start out with backstory strong enough to make the characters effectively REAL PEOPLE, who will tell me how they react. Being a keen observer of human behavior helps fill that in. Plot should put a notable rise in the anxiety levels of a protagonist. People aren't math.

Reginald Eric Brown II: Plot and characters are the story to me! Characters drive the plot. As I work out a potential story the main characters come in before the plot is really hashed out. The plot is a series of key events (usually with a start, middle and end in mind) with not much threading them together.

Selah Janel: They're both crucial to an interesting story. You have to care about the people involved in what's going on, but you also want to see them doing something fascinating. Plot makes characters react in ways that are unique unto themselves, and in turn those reactions can further the plot. They really go hand in hand.

Bobby Nash: Character is usually more important to me because I have to know the character to understand how he or she will react to the plot I place the character in the middle of to tell the story. Not all characters will handle situations the same way so I have to know my characters first.

Lee Houston Jr.: Plot and characters are very important, because they're the two main components of any good writing. Your characters should be as close to "real life" and believable as possible, despite whether they're superheroes, private detectives in the far flung future, or whatever. Plot is the story itself, be it a fantastic adventure, suspenseful mystery, or something in between. And while I don't have a specific style of developing either side, you want to reach a point where readers will wonder what their favorite creations of yours are up to and how they will react to a particular situation, survive the latest escapade, etc.

Save these for cookies, not for stories.
Erwin K. Roberts: With a new character, I'd say development would be hand in hand with the plot. Unless I had long term plans for the character, then I might tweak the plot to fit the character's road map.

With an established character plot should not / must not drive major changes to the character. For example, I could put Dr. Watson on a horse and hand him a blazing six-shooter because the story was set in Deadwood. That worked well. Dr. Watson galloping thru central London like Dennis Weaver's McCloud character, is probably not going to work out well.

What are the dangers of using a "put character tab A in plot slot B" type of plotting? What are the advantages?

James Ritchey III: 'Cardboard' is the outcome. No advantages. You start with an outline, but if Johnny doesn't make you stop and change it if it's not fitting with Johnny's personality and reaction, it's a routine--a D&D session--not an intelligent plot.

Reginald Eric Brown II: One danger is you'd probably have a lot of characters doing things out of character. But if you are just trying to drive the plot forward and the action itself is something 'anyone' would do...who knows? I think most actions should be pretty character specific (at least how the character does it).

Selah Janel: For me, I feel like over-outlining or formula writing reduces the chance of discovering some excellent subplots or really cool possibilities. Some of my stronger stories or more favorite sections came about because what the characters were doing suddenly gave me new ideas. You can't rule out that sudden line or activity that might see trivial, but could lead to some really amazing plot twists. You really reduce the opportunity to do new things or gain reader empathy if you view your characters as just a type to stick in at some point of the plot to move it along. However, for some people I do realize that it keeps them moving ahead, and for certain genres I can see the benefit of it, especially if the story is shorter. If the story needs a brisk, narrative style, then I can see where it would be beneficial, maybe even favorable.

Bobby Nash: I’d say that method can lead to a big danger in possibly having cookie cutter characters. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t some really talented writers out there that could probably take this scenario and make it sing. Of course, the flip side of that is that if you know your characters, you can put character A in Plot Slot B and get one type of story. You can then drop Character B in the same plot slot and have a completely different story.

Not so fleshy, are they?
Lee Houston Jr.: Hollywood, especially television, does this all the time. How many characters suddenly get rich, only to discover that money can't buy happiness? Or finally discover true love, despite the fact they're currently with someone else?

The only true "advantage" is that it gives the writer a launching pad, plot-wise, for a story. But since every character should be and hopefully is different, this should create a different reaction/story every time.

Erwin K. Roberts: During the "let's get a bigger body count than Mack Bolan" days of the 1970's and early 1980's Leisure Books had a sister paperback imprint whose name escapes me at the moment. Both imprints had the exact same series characters. You know, the Bolan clone, the Dirty-Harry-Is-A-Wimp cop, and so on. And mostly the same guys wrote for both series. That ended up, thanks to lax editors, with the Marksman being sometimes called the Sharpshooter. And vice-versa.

Some entries in both tough cop series were written by a young Nelson DeMille. A few years ago someone brought out an anthology of his contributions to both series. The brief introduction made it clear that the only editorial changes involved a search and replace so that the cop was called "Keller" in all the stories.

How important is it to you that you couldn't replace a character with another without significantly changing the plot?

James Ritchey III: The 'hero's journey' guy or gal will behave one way, the 'Thomas Covenant'-type with dismal personal integrity will behave another. I cross that road when my chicken has hatched.

Reginald Eric Brown II: If the mechanisms for the story could allow for swapping characters without much of an explanation (i.e. a cop story: the protagonist just gets assigned a new partner) but otherwise..if the structure isn't there in the story itself it may seem jarring. But the writer could be going for jarring.

Selah Janel: It's very important to me that all my characters are different. Just like as people, we're unique in the story of our lives, I want my characters are like that in books. I want there to be options of different types of people for readers to connect or feel empathy for. I'm not into cranking out "the love interest" "the villain" "the tragic hero with a slight problem but it's okay because he's secretly Cthulhu's offspring." That works for a while, but eventually people want to know what drives the characters...the best stories make you wonder what a character is doing outside of the plot of the book. Each character has their own contributions, but those spring from who they are, not that they happen to fill a certain role.

But I really love the old bird!
Bobby Nash: Again, it all comes down to character. If the character of Bobby Nash was in a story and was taken out and replaced by the character of Sean Taylor, the characters would not approach the problem they same way so the story would be different depending on which character used. [And now, dammit, I have the urge to write the adventures of Bobby Nash and Sean Taylor. :) ]

Lee Houston Jr.: Very. Granted, the basic personality types (like heroes versus villains) will always follow similar ethics within their respective moral codes (good versus evil), but if every character reacted exactly the same to any given situation, the literary world would be pretty boring. It's up to the writer to avoid the cliches, even if they are using a "cookie cutter plot" for some reason.

Erwin K. Roberts: For an ongoing series good plot is a good plot, unless it it completely tied into the hero's circle of friends, family and associates. Small things, like Doctor Octopus renting a room from Aunt May, can be left out if you have to move the story to Daredevil's title. Doc Ock engaged to Aunt May is a much bigger hurtle.

I have successfully transferred a plot originally intended for funny animals to a post 9-11 human hero. Sure, the tone changed quite a bit. And some characters did, too. But a five-hundred word synopsis of both stories would read much the same.

What techniques do you use to ensure that your plots grow our of your characters -- or perhaps the inverse, your characters grow out of you plot -- in a organic, natural way that benefits the overall story?

James Ritchey III: An example: I'm working on a story right now about a kid murdered by crooked cops.This is an amazing kid, a dreamer, poor but talented--and literally the future hope for billions of people. This very important child's dreams are ended over seeing a drug dealer being gunned down and robbed, that he hated in the first place--and his life is ended by an authority figure given great responsibility and trust, but who is a terrible person. I go full-on 'Rube Goldberg'. The character are fully developed, the basic plot informed and a metaphor for every life being sacred. But it's a loose framework, with details readily mutable--patterns can emerge that enhance the message, and if I try to force it, it can stall--but it's never written in stone, and you get to go back. Just...BE PREPARED, This is the way I do it, WHEN I do it, True Believer.

Reginald Eric Brown II: I like to use character alignments when I think about my characters and how they interact. Character alignments come from geeky things like Dungeons & Dragons and other games. It is a short way to be clear about what a character would or wouldn't do. There are two categories: Lawful/Chaotic and Evil/Neutral/Good. There is also true neutral (as in neutral/neutral). ex: Leia is lawful-good. Han Solo is Chaotic-good. Palpatine is Lawful-evil.

Great for catching mice and story ideas.
Selah Janel: I start with a basic plot or idea of where I want the story to go. Usually I have a definitive ending place, but as I start to write and gain insights to the characters, I'm more than willing to let them 'contribute.' If I get a sudden idea about something they might say or do, even if it makes things meander away from the outline for a bit, I'll gladly incorporate it if it either helps develop the characters or makes the whole story more interesting. A person's life isn't just point a to point b to point c in a pre-planned manner, so I'm not going to ignore tangents and other ideas as I'm writing about characters, either.

Bobby Nash: I follow my characters and see what they do. Then I write it down. That is, of course, oversimplifying things, but I don’t have a formula that I use for everything I write so it’s difficult to explain. Certainly, starting out with a good knowledge base of who the characters are helps.

Lee Houston Jr.: I think of my characters as real people, and treat them as such. Each story is another look at their respective lives. While the reader may not have read all the previous stories in chronological order, I write from the perspective that the characters are continuing from having experienced all the previous events of their life, even if I don't reference any specific details of the past in the current project.

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