Characters as Plot

So, as my last post suggested, I had a few unpleasant writing days at the end of last week, culminating in a low point on Saturday. I just felt worthless, unable to succeed, unable to even produce.

And then, yesterday (just after my last post, in fact) I had one of the most brilliant writing days in recent memory. Today, I had another one. I feel like I’m on a roller coaster and I’m my heart is plunging into my stomach as I rocket up a steep incline.* So, let me tell you exactly what has triggered this burst of production.

Well, most basically, it was just shutting up, sitting down, and writing. But that’ll always help so I’ll spare the lecture. What was really remarkable about the last couple of days was something entirely new to me in all of my experience in writing: figuring out the plot of my story all the way though by developing the characters.

This seemed really strange to me. To work on plot, you do outlines right? To do characters, you do character bios. When you write, you kind of stitch them together, right? That’s certainly what I always assumed, but I can see now that I was dead wrong; really, if  you work on your characters first and you do it right, outlining the plot suddenly just happens.**

I’m using a variant of the Snowflake Method for outlining this story, in which you start with a one sentence “pitch” for your story and work more and more detail into your characters and outlines as you go. I’m at the point now where I’m  describing my characters in terms of goals, conflicts, epiphanies, and similar things, but what I’m finding revolutionary is the story arc portion of the character sketches. Since I’m doing this for characters throughout the novel, I have to decide what’s going to happen at the beginning, middle, and ends of the story right now in order to write story arcs for characters that will inhabit those spaces.

So now I know (subject to change, of course) how the novel is going to end, because I know the ending of the story arc of the main characters. I know what happens in the middle, because a character that’s introduced there has a whole story arc. My entire outline is just a web of inter-related story arcs. This is the sort of thing I’ve read about in writing books for years but always smugly dismissed, saying, “I have the most fun figuring it out as I go,” but it turns out that I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

The planning isn’t as exciting as seat-of-your-pants writing, but it’s arguably more fulfilling. I feel like I’m creating something grander as I build it from constituent parts, like I’m some master engineer adding struts and pylons to this enormous structure. I have so much more confidence in my story now that I can see the rough spots ahead, now that I have the whole thing in my mind at once. It’s really been a revolutionary experience. If there’s anyone out there besides me who goes for the seat-of-your-pants writing, give this sort of planning a try. Even if it doesn’t work for you, it is most definitely worth investigating.

On an unrelated note, if you haven’t seen Symphony of Science’s new video “The Case for Mars,” go see it now. If you haven’t heard of Symphony of Science, then you are in for a treat.

*What goes up must come down, I know. I’m trying not to think about that, which is a viable strategy for NaNoWriMo.

**I make it sound like I had this rigid system of outlining and bio-ing and so forth, but I really don’t. The most preparation I’ve ever done for a novel was a week of worldbuilding and just thinking about the plot.

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3 responses to “Characters as Plot

  1. Yes, the characters still make the best plots. Took me a while to realize that, too. Actually, I think you’ll know you’re onto something once your characters start refusing to do what you want them to because it would be out of character…

    Actually, I think if you’re the type of guy to write w/out an outline, you can still do that, as your characters will make up the plot on the fly if they’re properly designed.

    BTW, have you read “Creating Characters” by Howard Lauther? Best character inspiration book ever. 🙂

    On an unrelated note, I won’t check out Symphony of Science until I’m done with that conlang, but I’ll sure do so afterwards.

    • Actually, the whole “characters refusing to do what they’re told” business is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s easy to laugh when an author talks about their characters like they have actual free will, but if you’ve written any stories, especially longer stories, you know that it’s true.

      • True. I always wondered what that would be like, and then suddenly, one of my main characters just started doing stuff on his own. He still keeps surprising me, and I’m working on that story essentially since march. That’s indeed a lot of fun.

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