Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Conversation of Plot and Character

The first time I thought about defining plot as a function of character, was in James Scott Bell's PLOT & STRUCTURE. Clearly, the book is about plotting, but he starts his method out with a character. Only since I started reading Dr. Linda Edelstein's WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS did it occur to me that the relationship is mutually beneficial. In the introduction, Dr. Edelstein points out, "situations influence traits, traits influence situations." Well, a plot is really a collection of situations, and a character is a collection of traits. So plugging that into the equation, we get:

PLOT influences CHARACTER, CHARACTER influences PLOT

In this way, plot and character become like a conversation. Plot advances, character responds, plot throws something else, character responds...

I'm a character writer, but the first thing that pops into my mind about a story is the premise. So let's demo this with an example.


Two teens become friends after they're involved in the same car accident. Teen 1 escapes from the wreckage with a single cut above the eyebrow. Teen 1's mother is pulled out unconscious and taken to hospital.


Already from this premise, we know a few things about our 2 teens.

A. Teen 1 has got to not be the time type of person that runs home to cry about the situation, or how will Teen 1 and Teen 2 meet?

B. Teen 2 needs to be in the hospital too, and therefore needs to be injured.

C. Teen 1 needs to be the kind of person that will go check on Teen 2.

D. Teen 2 needs to not kick Teen 1 out of the room, and not find the visits creepy. So let's put Teen 2 in a coma.

E. Also, we have to decide whether we want to concentrate on the friendship, or if we want possible romantic tension. Since I just want the friendship, I'll make both of the teens girls.


Teen 1 starts going to Teen 2's room, because she's not allowed in her mother's sterilised room, because of her injuries, and the risk of infections that could kill her.

But as long as Teen 1's mother is still alive, she'll spend most of her time in the observation room by her Mom, so let's kill off her Mom.


Once again Teen 1 can't be the type to run away. She needs to keep going to Teen 2's room. Let's make her the type to think that her mother's death is in vain, if she doesn't connect with Teen 2.

Since Teen 1 is spending all this time alone with Teen 2, then we need to make sure Teen 2 has no other visitors. Maybe her parents have gone on a trip somewhere.

Teen 1 starts telling stories about her childhood/mother/life to Teen 2.

Teen 2 reacts physically to the voice after a while, and eventually wakes up.


Teen 2 has a few choices when she wakes up. She can be totally weirded out by Teen 1 and kick her out. She can appreciate the fact that she's there when noone else is. Maybe she caused the accident and will feel guilty. Maybe she'd been on her way to do something interesting when the accident happened: 1 year anniversary with her bf, get an abortion, sit an exam.

At every juncture plot or character can go in different directions. When the plot goes one way, it changes/develops the character. When the character does something, it pushes the plot. If at any juncture the plot takes a different tack, then the character is also influenced and vice versa.


So this idea is something that hit me on Saturday, so I haven't had a chance to think about the implications for me. Or whether or not I've seen this in books. The only thing that pops to mind is the YA MC who will avoid telling a simple truth for the whole book, only to have it blow up in her face in a bigger way than necessary. If at any point, she would have made the choice to tell the whole truth, then the happily after ever would have been in Chapter 3.

Does every book have a conversation of plot and character? Or could you insert a totally different character and have the plot still take all the directions it does? Should you be able to do that? What does this mean for planning a novel? Drafting? Editing? Can you develop plot and character individually or must they always be thought of together?

Do you think plot and character are a conversation?


Matthew MacNish said...

Wow. I've never thought about it this way, but now that you break it down, this makes complete sense.

Thanks, Claire!

Jon Paul said...

Hey Claire! Howgozit?

I think plot and character have to be developed together. One of my old writing professor's used to draw a clear distinction between character plots and situational plots. So in a blow-everything-up, car-chase thriller (situational plot), the MC could be practically anybody. The action is external.

For a story about a soldier coming to grips with having accidentally caused the death of one of his squadmates (character plot), the story is essentially telling the choices he makes. His internal makeup was what moves the plot forward.

BTW, though I am somewhat more liberal on the issue, my professor felt that character-driven plots (like the one you lay out above) are the only real stories worth reading.


Marsha Sigman said...

I think it has to be woven together always. Even in a big action novel, if you don't care about the character then how can you care about the action? It might work better in movies.

The plot comes easier for me but I know characters influence it and make all of it matter. So that's what I try to work on.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Oh, very nicely put! A conversation between plot and character -- who, as you proved -- both influence each other. If not a conversation, then a complicated dance (like one of those 18th century things).

Looking back, I can see how that conversation/dance influenced the creation of my last WIP. Perhaps I can now look forward to the jumbled ideas that make up all I know about the next WIP and use that idea to help me plan.


jbchicoine said...

I guress I never thought about plot/character 'conversations' in such explicit terms, but it has certainly influenced my stories. A character I introduced as simply a catalyst for a little tension turned out to be a major player and infulenced the entire plot and theme! Yes, I'm a panster and loving it!

Claire Dawn said...

JP and Marsha, I think I'm halfway between your points.

I think that even situational plots are somewhat facilitated by plot. Take Die Hard for example, if I was in Bruce Willis' position I'd either have just sat there and cried, or said, "It was nice knowing ya," and went home. The character needs to be the sort who won't do that.

Like Marsha says, we also need at least a bit of a reason to identify with him/her. If we didn't, we wouldn't even bother with action movies, we'd just watch real stuff get blown up on youtube.

I think that if youre story is character driven then the conversation includes hug chunks where the character pushes the plot, and then little bits where the plot pushes back. And if it's plot-driven, it's vice versa.