As both a writer and a reader, one of the most common debates I see is based on a preference of which type of story you prefer: plot driven or character driven? But in the end, I always felt like it was a trick question, and the best answer is actually both! If a story has a high concept, original plot but doesn’t have a character to pull the reader through and make it count, it doesn’t have the same impact as a story with interesting or relatable characters. Likewise, even the best, most interesting or fun characters don’t connect with readers much if they’re acting in a floating space with no story happening. To avoid falling into one of these two extremes of focusing on either plot or character, one of the biggest things I work on with coaching writers and my developmental clients, is to ensure their plot and character are woven together in a cohesive story
where one can’t operate without the other.
Today I’m going to share the three main steps that I follow with my stories to weave this effective dance of plot and character. Though I’m a “plantser” and generally start out with some of this while outlining my story, I also fill in and straighten some of it as I go. For complete pantsers, these same tips can also apply while going over your finished story and creating a sort of “reverse outline” to see which elements are present, and what may need further smoothing out. Thus, the first I start with are:
1. Mapping your plot points.
I like to start with an idea of where my story is headed. Though as mentioned, you could create this later by marking the main plot points of your finished story, my process includes brainstorming them before fleshing out a complete draft. In an outline, or a flexible ‘zero draft’ of brain-dumping the entire gist of the story in a quick session, I need a general idea of what my beginning, middle, and end will be about. Or better yet, a seven-point structure tends to work best with my character arcs. The in-between journey may shift and change once I start writing, but having a map of “fixed points” to follow helps keep the premise of my story on track, even when the characters try to take over. And gladly let them take over, as you’ll see more of below.
2. Your main character’s makeup.
What makes a character interesting and relatable isn’t always their strong or endearing personality. What makes a protagonist connect to a reader is the personal journey they experience over the course of the story. Give the readers insight not just into who they are, but who they want to be. Who they need to be. And what’s keeping them from becoming that and fulfilling their goals. This not only speaks to the reader on a deeper level with your character, but it is also what creates the line between the story happening to your character, and it being integral to your character. A few questions to strengthen your protagonist and root them into the story would be:
What is your character’s deepest fear, and the biggest lie they believe about themself or the
world around them?
What caused them to feel that way and create that wound?
How does that manifest in their personality, voice, and how they interact during the story?
With these beliefs, what does your character want most?
What does achieving that look like in their mind, and what will happen if they don’t reach that
What does the story mean to those personal goals and stakes of your character?
3. Illustrating a push and pull of plot VS. character.
Once I know what my character wants, and where that goal needs to take them to complete the story, that’s when I fill out the rest of the story between my mapped plot points. And the reason I follow the seven point outline is because I feel it matches up well against the character’s internal journey with their arc’s turning points falling closely with the plot points. In a push and pull of cause and effect, almost like the way a romantic relationship appears in beats on a story, the character’s arc and the plot points should affect one another. At the beginning, an inciting incident pushes your character from their comfort zone and eventually leads them to make a choice. That choice should move the plot forward, and in different turning points, the story fights back against the character’s outer goal as well as their realization of the internal truth their arc is all about. In turn, the character has setbacks and wins as they act within those plot points. And the character’s actions to overcome eventually result in a climax of both the external story and what they really need to learn on their inner journey.
Do your character and plot illustrate this dance in a satisfying way that wraps up both stories in the end? A couple of questions to help ensure you’ve created this effect are:
Would the story end in the same way without your character’s presence?
Would your character learn what they needed to if they hadn’t faced this plot?
If you answer ‘yes’ to either of these, try going back and evaluating where you can make the character and plot more vital to one another. You’ll be surprised how much it will make your story shine with more impact to your readers!
Meet Amber Lambda
Reigning from the dreamy plains where tornadoes and imagination roam, Amber Lambda has always been filled with a creative streak. You’ll never catch her without a writing notebook. (A pen, however, is a different story.) Though she adores the endless possibilities of a blank page, Amber's author heart belongs to YA love stories, often including fantasy and soft sci-fi elements. Her mission is to create clean stories laced with themes and ideas that teens (and adults) will love and relate to.
Her website is http://amberlambda.wordpress.com