Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven

Warning: This post may be a bit rambly and confusing.

It’s one of those where I’m going to be thinking as I type, trying to figure out a few things. I can’t tell you yet whether the post will end with a conclusion or a questions. Or a dozen questions. Oh, well. Feel free to come along for the ride.

As a reader, I’m all about character–in terms of WHY I’m in the book. I love to lose myself in personalities–the people who are quirky, angry, effervescent, stuck, free, stubborn, searching…you name it. And I love to see all these personalities come into contact with each other: interaction and conflict. The dynamics of any mix you want to throw together on the page–that’s what I want to read about.

Which means that, as a reader, I want the plot done really well. I do NOT want to be aware of it. I don’t want something so convoluted and tricky that I get caught up in WHAT is happening and pulled away from WHO it’s happening to. Yes, of course, I’ve read strongly plotted books, and I’ve loved them–I can admire the author, and I get caught up in a great story, just like anyone else. But…if I have to pick, I’d rather get caught up in the characters.

I think this is one reason I like mysteries. I know–here’s the rambly, confusing part. Mysteries ARE plot, right? But, in general, the basics of that plot are steps I know: Murder or some other crime occurs. Detective takes on case. Detective hunts down clues, bugs people, eavesdrops and breaks into necessary buildings. Detective gets close, gets beat up or shot at, wonders despairingly if this is THE case that will finally stump her. Detective gets the last piece of the puzzle, adds it all up, and catches the bad guy. Detective probably solves or moves to a new place on some personal problem as well. Yes, I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, because a good detective story is much more than these parts, but you know what I mean. If the author is a strong writer, you’re watching and thinking about the specific details of a plot you know, not working to follow the pattern of the plot.

My first book is a mystery. I loved writing it. Because–guess what? As a writer, plot is not my strength. (Anyone else see a connection here?) When I wasn’t sure where to go next, what to make happen, I’d look at the suspects and think about who my MC needed to investigate next. I’d think about the last clue and see where my hero needed to follow it. Had he been open and direct in his last attempt to solve the crime? Maybe it was time for some sneakiness. Because I knew that basic plot of the mystery, I was able to play with voice and humor and adventure and an irritating sidekick.

Of course, that book hasn’t sold.

This new book, the YA historical, is so different. It’s going to be one of those other books–the ones with characters you love and love to hate. It’s going to be one where the personalities clash, where the people struggle with trying to make their relationship work and pretty much fail, and all those conflicts along the way.

Do you see how dull that paragraph sounds? That’s because, yes, without plot, character is…meh. And see that last phrase…”all those conflicts?” Yeah, tell me about those conflicts.

No, really, please. Tell me about those conflicts. Give me some plot, will you?

I always hear that, in a character-driven novel, the actions and problems arise out of…yes, you got it: character. What a character will do in any given situation comes from that character’s personality. Yes, those things I love so much as a reader. But in terms of writing about them–well, it feels so much more like guesswork. When I was writing the mystery, I could say to myself: “Self, MC needs to find out about Bad-Guy #3.” Then self would go off and write  about MC “finding out,” making sure MC did that in his own special way.

In this character-driven book, I’m more like, “Self: MC needs to….???????!!!!!!!??????!!!!!!” With a few $*(%#*(#%))#@# thrown in for good measure.

Obviously, the idea of a plot-driven book as a separate thing from a character-driven book is some kind of joke.

Because, yes, we all really know it. Plot and character are so NOT separate issues. The plot does depend on who your hero and your bad guys and your sidekicks are. And the character does completely depend on what happens in this particular story about these particular people. And clearly, just because I’m not writing a mystery, and it’s not obvious that this MC has to go follow that guy down the alley and listen in on his conversation with the elephant trainer–I still need that plot to help figure out my characters.

I guess the conclusion (yay!) is that I have some more learning to do. I guess each book we take on, if we’re lucky, makes that demand on us–to push past the stage of the writing craft we’ve made it to so far, to stretch ourselves to take on the next thing we need to figure out. As tough as this is, as frustrating as it can be, I think it’s also where some of our hope has to lie. If there is more we can do, more craft we can practice, then our writing can get stronger. Better.

So here’s to plot and character. And, appropriately enough for a Monday, here’s to all the torture and agony they cause us!


Writing Lessons from Tiffany Aching

Okay, Tiffany Aching isn’t Steven Tyler. But if we’re learning anything from Jo Knowles’ “unintentional blog series” about Tyler, it’s that writing advice comes where you find it. And, probably, most people would agree that Terry Pratchett would be right up there with authors we could all learn from.

BTW, if you didn’t know who Tiffany Aching is without that Wikipedia link, stop reading this post , go out to the bookstore or get online, and buy yourself a copy of The Wee Free Men. If you’re smart, you’ll just buy the whole series now and save yourself the extra gas and shipping charges. And then be prepared to spend the next few days laughing hysterically, having moments of philosophical clarity, and pretty much bowing down to the genius that is Pratchett.


Tiffany Aching is a witch. Not your typical witch, unless you’re talking typical to Discworld. She’s a witch for many reasons–the first and foremost probably being that she chooses to be one. Another reason, though, is that Tiffany has First and Second Thoughts. Occasionally, she has Third Thoughts, but when that happens her Second Thoughts step in and say, “Let’s all calm down, please, because this is quite a small head.”  (She’s only nine years old.) Tiffany’s thoughts let her see things more clearly than other people; they let her stand outside herself and observe what’s really going on, separated from her own feelings at the moment. It’s a powerful ability, better, in my opinion, than all the magic the wizards at Unseen University can do.

So where does the writing lesson come in? Here: To really use these thoughts, to really see past all the illusion and even all the things she’d like to believe, Tiffany has to be still. She has to, as another witch tells her early in the book, “open your eyes…and then open your eyes again.” She has to look.

I’m a bit stuck on my picture book revision. I’m at the point where I really have to get closer to the dynamic/relationship/conflict between my young hero and the other character. Which means–yes, here we go again–really figuring out what each of them wants and what that want makes them do. Once again: goal+action. You’d think I’d have it down by now.

All weekend, I was busy with weekend stuff, but I thought maybe I could let the problem bubble away in the back of my mind and see what that back-of-my-mind came up with. The internet is full of writing articles and blogs about people getting brainstorms in the shower or while they’re cooking dinner or just before they go to sleep. Well, I occasionally get this happening to me, but not all that often. For whatever reason, when my brain is showering or cooking or drifting into unconsciousness, it is pretty busy doing just that. The membrane between front and back seems to be relatively non-porous.

Apparently, when I want to figure out a story problem, I have to–yes, you’re getting it–I have to be still. Like Tiffany.

So this week, I’m scheduling time for stillness. I will take myself away from the computer. I will stretch out and close my eyes. I will open them to look at my characters. And then I will open them again.

I’m betting I actually get somewhere.

Houston, We Have a Problem.

I’m baaack! I had a wonderful time at the 2011 Pennwriters Conference, and I’m going to do a more complete post about it later this week. This morning, I’m going to talk about one of the revelations I had at one particular workshop, and what I’m going to do about it.

First, a quick reminder that today is the last day to enter my contest for the “best” revision metaphor. Leave a comment at last week’s post and join in the fun.

So..there were plenty of wonderful workshops at the conference, and I had time to drop in on a few. One was Ramona DeFelice Long’s “Four Truths of Character.” Ramona’s talk was great, and it got me thinking–as all the good classes do–about my own projects. Specifically, about Caro’s story. One of the things Ramona talked about was the character’s mission–another word for her goal. THE THING SHE WANTS. And I realized that I’ve been drifting around that question, not honing in on what it is that Caro is going after.

Now, I have some excuse, I know. There was that crazy first draft, at the end of which I realized I had two stories to write, not one. If I wasn’t clear, while I was drafting, what story I was supposed to be putting Caro in, it’s no wonder I wasn’t clear on what she wanted. So I’m not flagellating myself. Too much.

BUT…here’s the thing. I have this book-in-a-drawer. It’s a book I still love, and a book I have hopes of revising at some point down the line. And the longer I stay away from it, the longer I realize that perhaps the biggest revision point will be…wait for it: what the hero in that book really wants.

Light-bulb moment.

I wrote six drafts of that book, all without tightening the story enough around the hero’s goal/needs. And the result has been, I think, that I have a nice, well-written, funny book, with a big flaw that is now–because of that polishing–harder to revise away.

In other words, I don’t want to wait that long on Caro’s story to figure it out.  (Okay, and this is very possibly true for the picture book, too!)

So what am I going to do about it? Well, my first thought was that I needed some brainstorming time with my critique group. So I brought it up at yesterday’s meeting, thinking I’d just schedule 20 minutes or so at our next meeting. But, of course, because they are so amazing, that wasn’t good enough for them. One brilliant critique partner suggested that I could let them know about some missions/goals that I’ve seen in other YA books.

Another light bulb.

So here’s the plan. In the next couple of weeks, I will:

  • Pick a half-dozen of my favorite YA novels and reread at least the first chapter, but most likely up to the point where the inciting incident hits, since I think that incident is a microcosm of the story’s BIG PROBLEM.
  • Figure out what the hero wants at that moment, and see if I can come up with how that specific goal plays into the big story goal (which, I think, the hero doesn’t always know until later in the story).
  • See if, in the process, any more light bulbs go off.
  • Bring those goals and my own questions about Caro to my critique group for brainstorming

I’m also, I think, going to read Donald Maass’ The Breakout Novelist. I think Maass’ writing books may be the best I’ve found, for pushing me to actually think about character, instead of just typing away and seeing what comes.

Between Ramona, my critique partners, Donald, and me, I’m guessing Caro and I will get our mission. Or at least get a heck of a lot closer to it!

Cause: The All-Important WHY

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know I’m a plotter. I had to “pants” for a while on the first draft of this WIP, and it was not a happy place for me. Effective, yes, but not happy. So, of course, I’m in love with being back to plotting as I work on the second draft.

When I got started, I basically threw a bunch of scenes into Scrivener–things I knew needed to happen. And then I started filling in cards for them–my MC’s scene goal, the obstacles she’d face, and a few details that I wanted to weave in. I took a break from this story to get that picture-book revision done, but now I’m back and I’m trying to tie these scenes together with a bit more connectivity. In other words, I’m figuring out why one scene follows another. Why my character does things. What causes her actions.

I’m big on this when I critique–I tend to push people to really look at the character actions and connect them to the story, ground them in something specific that has actually happened. And I love the magic of staring at a scene in my own work, knowing I’m not there yet, and then…Flash! The lightbulb goes on, and I’ve got it.

It’s easy, when we write, to know the big stuff–the major plot points that will lead to the ending, that will build to the crisis and the character change. In between those plot points, though, is a lot of space. Yes, it can be maddeningly vast and intimidating, but it’s actually there for a reason. It’s where you build to each of those big events, where you layer in the smaller things that show us who your character is, that push her in new directions, and that–yes–cause the big things to happen.

Let’s take an example. Say you’re writing about a teenage boy–Clive–who is about to get his driver’s license. You know that, oddly enough, Clive doesn’t want to drive. So, he’s going to miss his driving test. Fine. Good. Plot point. If you’re one of those amazing people who can write scenes out of order, you write that scene. (If not, you put notes about it into a Scrivener note card!) Just as his dad is coming upstairs to get him for the appointment, Clive climbs out his bedroom window and down the rose trellis. Except the trellis breaks, and so does Clive’s arm. Dad’s truck is a stick-shift. Clive has successfully delayed the inevitable.


You can start with the general. Let’s say, really early in the book, Clive sees someone die in a horrible accident. Okay–there’s your big why–that’s the reason Clive doesn’t want to drive. But you can’t just let us know this and then, ten scenes later, pop Clive out his window. You have to do some set up. You need to show Clive trying to talk to his parents about not driving and getting no support. You need to show him in driver’s training failing dismally at parallel parking. You could, of course, throw in the ghost of the dead drive who makes Clive relive the crash over and over. You should probably let us know about that rose trellis before the big day, maybe show Clive using it safely when he sneaks out to ask his girlfriend to run away with him.

These are all good. You need to take it one step further, though. You need to determine the single, very specific story moment that sends Clive out that window. You can’t just have his worry build and build over scenes and then–on that day–out he goes. Something concrete has to propel him into action. Like…his dad coming upstairs and “jokingly” waving around the belt he hit Clive with when Clive was a little boy. Or his mom showing him the new wallet she bought him, with the space for his driver’s license, then telling him it’s time to go. Or his irritating sister singing “Little Deuce Coupe” over and over, as she dances back and forth outside his bedroom door and blocks his escape route.

Notice that the action-causing events aren’t always that big a deal, although–yeah–that belt could be pretty intense. These things act as a catalyst for the big action; they’re the match you drop onto the pile of gunpowder. Small, inexpensive, available…but absolutely necessary set things off.

They’re the whys.

Today, Character Definitely Comes Before Plot

When I finished the first draft of my WIP and after I did the happy dance, I decided I was going to do some major plotting before I started on Draft 2. I had spent enough time with that exploratory first draft and now I wanted structure. Big time.

So I opened Scrivener and I started tossing in scenes, and I was happily and busily adding cards to my corkboard.

Until…I wasn’t.

As happens all too frequently, I ran out of scenes–I ran out of ideas for scenes. When I hit this spot, I go back to character. My exploratory draft made me familiar with each of my characters in a sort of gray, blobby, nebulous way, but did not really put me in touch with what they want, why it matters, and–most important–what actions they’ll take to try and get there.

Today, I started working on the father character, someone I love a lot, but, no…don’t really understand. And I was drawing a blank, but taking a stab at who he might be and what his goal could possibly become, and I was only getting so far until…

I realized I was giving him a goal very similar to the goal of my MC’s would-be boyfriend. Oops. I almost gave up then, because you can’t have too characters with the same personalities and same needs, right? Wait…what if they start at the same point, but end up changing in very different ways–one much more successfully than the other? Then what you’ve got is…such a lovely word: CONTRAST! I mean we’re talking about the two men in the book, both of whose goals revolve around loving a woman (different women!), and we’re looking at one generation following the other and needing to do things very differently.

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

From here, things took off–this glimpse of similar goals with different paths led me deeper and deeper into who these men are, who they need to be, and which–if either–is going to succeed. Along with why. And guess what…

Character led to plot.

I’ve set up maybe a half-dozen more scenes this morning and moved at least that many more around on my corkboard, because–as one thing happens, it sets off another. And when that thing happens, it sends something else into a new spot. And so on and so on and so on….

This, to me, is one of the best cures for writer’s block, backing up to the who ARE these people and what the BLEEP do they want? Yes, it involves some fixed-and-dilated starting at the computer. Yes, it means resisting the impulse to pound your head against your keyboard. Eventually, though, the wall cracks, and a brick falls down and then another brick and, finally, the story starts to come.

And, of course, that brings on yet another dance of joy.

Here’s hoping the productivity fairy zings her wand over your writing space today!

Me to MC: Let’s Decorate

It’s been too long since I worked on my novel. In terms of actual writing–August was great & productive, with getting the synopsis written & filling in some gaps in the middle. And I’ve been doing some more reading–trying to connect with Ida B. Wells and get close to what it is about her that inspires me and needs to inspire Caro. And I won’t have much time this week to really focus in, because I’ll be getting ready to head down to San Luis Obispo to talk at the Central Coast Writers’ Conference.

With the “writing” time I will have, I’ve decided to play. Caro and I are going to decorate her room.

This should be interesting. My visual-art talents are pretty much limited to drawing stick figures–really simple stick figures. If you read Susan Taylor Brown’s blog, you may have seen some of the art collage work she’s doing–here’s her page on Flikr to really look at the beautiful pages she’s created. Anyway, I do NOT have aspirations to this level, but it has gotten me thinking. I may do some searches for furniture around 1910, print some of them out, and do the more basic-level, think-first-grade kind of collage. I’m picturing printing everything in black & white, then maybe washing some colors over it (like I know what that means or even how to do it quickly and easily!).

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what I need to furnish & decorate Caro’s room. I want, somehow, to catch the period and her personality–the contrasts between the way her mother will have set up the room when Caro was younger and the layers Caro has added as she gets older, the things that contrast and conflict with the original feel & look. So I’m picturing some pretty sturdy, long-lasting furniture, but with bright and cheerful colors–which may be where the wash comes in. And I think whatever I put on top of things will be important–the blanket on top of the bed, the items–necessaries and extras–on top of the dresser, the books on the shelves. Underneath becomes critical, too–what is Caro hiding away, from her brothers and, most importantly, from her mother? There’s a photograph somewhere, that I think was originally Mama’s, but which Caro now has–without her mother realizing it’s “gone.” There’s a place that Caro’s little brother sits when he visits, and something her older brother fiddles with when he shows up. And there’s probably a scuff on the floor where her father stands, just inside the door, because he’d rather talk with Caro downstairs, in their shop, then in a place where she’s growing into a young woman he doesn’t quite understand.

I’ve heard authors talk about figuring out what’s in a character’s pocket, or purse, and I think I probably need that, too. For some reason, though, it’s starting to feel as if Caro’s room is what’s critical here. When she steps out of that room and into the rest of the house, she walks into the control of her mother, and that world isn’t great for asserting any individuality. When she pushes through that space to outside, into Chicago, she’s venturing further and further from what she knows–loving it, but also having the bigger world threaten her edges. So her room, I think, will be the last spot where she actually knows who she is, and even that is changing on a daily basis.

Where does your hero live? Does he or she have a space that is truly theirs? And what’s in it? What’s on display for anyone to see, and what’s tucked away? Have you thought about decorating lately?

What Does Your Hero Carry With Her?

In case you aren’t YET a fan of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, and you aren’t aware that the newest book, Changes, has been on bookstore shelves for a while, I’m here to let you know about it. I’ll also mention that I haven’t read it yet. It’s just come out in hardback and, while sometimes I don’t buy hard-cover booksbecause I’m cheap trying not to break the house budget by spending all our food dollars on book, that’s not why this time. I’m not buying it yet, because I, my son, and my husband reread and reread the Dresden books, which means I will be storing them all for decades. If I bought hardcovers of all the books I was going to keep and reread, I’d run out of space. Like tomorrow. Not to mention, when I truly want to disappear into a book, to just curl up and escape, I really like a light, bendable paperback that doesn’t break my wrist.

So I’m like #3,282,619 on the hold list at the library, and meanwhile, I’m rereading the series to catch up. Again.

And I’m realizing something new. Harry  has stuff.

He’s got magical powers, too, but that’s beside the point. No, he’s got several things that he takes pretty much everywhere with him. I’m not going to get them all, but some are:

  • His wizard staff, which he has carved himself and which gets beaten up and scarred as he goes along
  • His silver pentacle necklace, left to him by the mother he never met, which he can use to bring magical light into any dark situation
  • His blasting rod, which helps him fine-tune his sort of brick-bashing power
  • His black leather duster, given to him by his ex-girlfriend (now disappeared out of his life after she was bitten by vamps and turned into an ALMOST vamp who loves him to much to be with him).  He magicks the duster so that it resists stuff like fire and bullets. Pretty much beats Kevlar hands down.

He also picks up a foo-dog puppy along the way. How cute are these?

Okay, back to the stuff. You can see that each of these items has some symbolic meaning. Butcher does this all much better than my list shows–each of these items is a tool that, most of the time, he uses to accomplish some piece of magic. Yes, sometimes a staff is just a… (couldn’t resist!) But here’s the thing, somewhere in each book, at least one of those tools takes on extra meaning, and–when this happens–Butcher packs the tool and the whole scene with an beautifully emotional wallop that makes the reader sit up and say, “Wow.” And “Oh….”

I want to do this.

Dresden has a lot of things that help him out, but Changes is something like Book 12 in his series. I’m looking for one item, one thing with room for that kind of emotional punch. I’ve been playing with the idea of a photograph in my WIP that will seem to tell one story and, by the end of  the book, reveal a truth that hits my hero hard. On the one hand, this feels a bit trite, but look at my descriptions of Butcher’s symbols–the way I’ve written them, they read as pretty trite, but in Butcher’s stories they feel anything but. So once again, it comes down to craft–it’s only cliché if you let it stay that way. Whether I have that level of craft yet…well, that’s the $10,000,000 question.

Step one, though?

This is a scene I’ve already 1st-drafted, and the photo was nowhere to be seen. It may be too late in the story for an intro, and I may need to find an earlier spot to seed that picture. Or it may turn out that the photo doesn’t work, that I need to dig further, past my first idea, for something that has more inherent meaning, more possible layers. For now, though, I’ve done what’s important. I’ve taken the idea, the initial piece of stuff, and I’ve given it to my hero.

Let’s see what she decides to do with it.

What does your hero carry with her? Why? What meaning does the object have at the start, and how does that meaning change over the story arc?