Characters or Plot – which is more important?

I have to thank @kmweiland for getting me noodling along these lines again. Her tweet was asking just this question, as a question of the day.

My response (in more than 140 characters this time) is that a really well considered character study can still be a really fascinating read.  I love writing back stories for people I see randomly in restaurants or in the stores.

Why is he limping? Why does that kid seem sick?  Geez, how MANY bags of potato chips do you really need?   When you ask yourself those questions, there are two things to do – either ask them out loud (which may garner some funny looks) or write them down and come up with your own fictional rationale for what’s going on a little later.

A really good plot on the other hand, is really just an outline.  It might be a wonderful plot, never before seen by the mind of man, glistening with new promises of movies or maybe a broadway production.  But without characters to develop, the plot is just… a framework.  It’s the skeleton of the story without any of the meat.

So, I think it is sort of like a sandwich. The bread holds the good stuff inside.  That’s the plot.  It’s full of promise, but you really don’t want to taste just the bread.  Sure, there are different flavors of bread and I love them all – but that’s not enough to make me sit up and take notice.  Well, unless it’s fresh out of the oven, but that’s a different story.  The good stuff is inside. The characters.  And it is how those characters react to the plot (which must be somewhere in the mayo and mustard layers) that a really good sandwich is formed.

Yeah. I’m hungry. Sorry about that.  But I like my analogy. =D

Motivation and Spice

I found my old recipe card in a book under my chair.  It’s a card that I refer to sometimes when I need to color outside of the lines.

Take some card stock or paper and list the following motivations.  Add any others that come to mind.

  • Vengeance
  • Catastrophe
  • Love / Hate
  • Chase
  • Grief / Loss
  • Rebellion
  • Survival / Deliverance / Escape
  • Discovery / Quest
  • Betrayal
  • Persecution
  • Rivalry
  • Ambition
  • Sacrifice
  • Metamorphosis / Maturation

Now, rip the paper up into strips with one entry on each strip and plop them into a hat.  The next step is to create a set of “Spice” ideas.  Add new spice ingredients as you think of them.

  • Deception
  • Criminal Activity
  • Profit / Loss
  • Un-natural or unwelcome affection
  • Making amends
  • Suspicion
  • Conspiracy
  • Suicide
  • Honor / Dishonor
  • Searching
  • Lost / Found

Again, rip the paper up into strips and put these spices into a different hat.

Now what? Well, of course you guessed it.  Now draw one plot element and one spice element from each hat.  Then spend ten minutes pondering how to mash the elements together into a story, and write down a bare bones plot outline.

Yeah, it might not be what you needed.  But I often find randomness to be a great creativity boost.  Just what would a Chase story have in common with Making amends?  I don’t know, so you’ll have to tell me.

I have a 3×5 card with the above motivations on one side and spices on the reverse.  It keeps me guessing about what the possibilities are out there. And as a writer, it’s all about possibilities, isn’t it?

Let me know if it helps you out!

Killer Dreams?

As adults, I think most people discount dreams. We don’t pay attention to them, don’t put any significance in them, and don’t bother remembering them.

I’ve always been glad that I have never had that tendency. I dream often, vividly, in color, and I remember my dreams.

Today it paid off. I dreamed up a whopper, that is still vivid enough for me to think about writing it up as a test thought or two. It starts off with some boxes found in the sand on the shore of a lake that contain odd things, and as an investigator I am tasked with figuring out if there was a crime or not. Yeah! I love puzzles, and I love them when they come in my dreams. The problem is, this was not a puzzle. This was a murder that happened nearly 30 years ago, and the evidence in these boxes is a very sad tale that implicates the father of a friend of mine. We had heard that he was dead, so it should be all over, right? Right?!?

Maybe. Will I write it? I don’t know. I’m a bit busy with other stuff at the moment, but I may very well come back to this one. I’ve never tried a murder mystery.

So take it as a cautionary tale, my scribbling friends. Don’t discount your dreams. Write them down. Mine them for ideas. Follow where they lead.

Steal this plot!!

Thanks for bearing with me while I've been on a non-voluntary hiatus.  Now, back to work!

It's pretty easy to get the "plot" confused with what your characters are trying to do, and where they should be going by the time they meet what's-his-nose in chapter 5.  It helps sometimes to think about plot at a higher level.

Take the plot for example, where a guy moves into an area and finds that the people there are being bullied by a tyrannical leader. He's shaking them down for money, abusing them physically, insulting them constantly.  The new guy takes exception to this, after a couple of run-ins with this guy, and he gets fed up. Having a relationship starting to build with a local beauty just furthers his drive for justice.   So the stranger calls the bully into a trap and kills him and his henchmen in a triumphant, climactic battle.

You might have been thinking, 'ah, this is a Western'.  It might have been. It could also be high fantasy, SciFi, modern contemporary fiction, or a period historical piece.  I was thinking of the movie "Unforgiven".  The plot is not defined by setting or characters. The setting and characters serve the plot.

The plot works in any genre be cause it is generic to humanity.  Any unjust leader who rises to this kind of abusive leadership is just begging for a fight, right? 

So if you don't like this plot, steal a different one. Really, they've all been done before… more or less.

Take a story that really moves you for whatever reason. Strip away all of the character and setting information.  Summarize the main points of what the conflict is and how it is resolved.  Then, see how you can make that your own by bringing it into your own world, with your voice and your characters.  Then add some twists – like maybe some slaves that need to be released. (Does that bring the Mask of Zorro or the Temple of Doom to mind?) Or a big political problem if the hero wins. Or maybe that lovely gal won't love him if he succeeds – does he choose love over justice? (That's a question about the character, not the plot!)

If you write it well, and remake it well enough in your own words, nobody is going to quibble about where you got the plot from.