Six impossible things

Making stuff up: plot to characters

The plot-centered story is popularly assumed to be the territory of the action-adventure story. This is because action-adventure pretty much requires a strong plot. But we’re talking about process here, and the way writers make stuff up, and that means that the kind of story is irrelevant. Making stuff up is making stuff up; the process is similar regardless of whether the end product is a Romance, a mystery, or a highbrow literary novel. Where the process differs depends on the writer, not on the type of story.

This is not to say that a given writer will always work the same way, but most writers are more comfortable with one of the main branches of the idea-tree – they tend to consistently start from plot, or characters, or setting, and develop the other branches from there. When their backbrain hands them some other starting place, they’re lost.

This is particularly true for writers who are used to having characters walk into their heads and demand stories. They’re used to struggling to create plots for their people, but they have no idea whatsoever how to take a plot and end up with characters.

Plots happen to people, but when one starts with a plot, one usually has a couple of archetypes and some very general groups – “The Evil Councilor murders all of the Royal Family except the young Prince, who escapes with his Loyal Bodyguard and goes into hiding; years later, when the Prince is grown, he sets out to reclaim the throne. Along the way he meets people who will help him in the final confrontation.” This plot summary has three character slots (Councilor, Prince, Bodyguard), an indeterminate number of other characters (the soon-to-be-deceased Royal Family, helpers), and a bunch of possible-as-required-to-flesh-out-the-plot slots (people he knew while in hiding, general city and country inhabitants, minions of the evil councilor, guards and soldiers, etc.).

Starting with this plot, vague as it is, writers take several different approaches to developing characters. Some expand the plot outline so as to have a more complete list of characters; others treat it like developing a play – they “cast” the main characters and work out from there, deciding later how many extras they need to flesh out the story. And some “write their way into” the characters.

Casting the characters is a good place to start. Lots of writers (and readers) play the “which actor would be the ideal to play Character X in a movie” game after the book is out; this is just doing it before hand, and with a larger set of choices. The writer can pick real actors or people, or favorite characters from books or movies; they can combine outstanding character traits from two or more people or characters to invent a new character; or they can invent characters completely from scratch; or they can do some characters one way and others another. They can then cast the Evil Councilor, Prince, and Bodyguard either according to type (say, Senator Palpatine as Councilor, Hamlet as Prince, and their third grade teacher as Loyal Bodyguard) or against it (say, Ellen DeGeneres as Councilor, Kermit as the Prince, and Glinda the Good as the Bodyguard).

The point of this is to give yourself a starting place for making up people who will fit your plot, not to assign rigid traits to each of your characters. Once the characters and plot come together, they’ll affect each other (and hopefully both change for the better). The characters have to fit with each other as well as with their roles in the plot, but the writer can tweak things in either direction depending on which aspects he/she likes best. Perhaps two of the three major characters work together, but not all three. So one of them has to change.

Which character changes depends on whether the writer wants to try for comedy or parody, or for something darker and more serious. Either way, the writer still has choices: they can cast somebody different in one of the roles, they can tweak their initial choices (adding or subtracting character traits and backstory to increase the lighthearted or angsty aspects of the characters that don’t quite fit the story they’ve envisioned), or they can try to make the cast they have work in spite of itself.

If the writer wants to develop characters “from scratch,” the main questions to ask are “What kind of person would do this?” (“this” meaning whatever the known plot incidents require of that particular role) and “Why?” Motivation is key; however you build your characters, if they end up doing things “because that’s what the plot says happens,” they will be cardboard. So when working from plot to characters, it is important to keep checking back to make sure that you can picture your nifty new character taking all of the actions the plot says he is going to take.

It can be interesting to write someone who is atypical, but if one invents a character who is too far off, they become implausible simply because a shy, sickly, sensitive introvert is unlikely ever to have become an Evil Councilor, much less murder an entire family to gain power.

Secondary characters usually come along after the main characters are set, even if the writer knows about them from the start, because it’s more important for the central characters to be well-rounded yet fit both their story roles and the relationships the story needs them to have. If a secondary character doesn’t fit the plot or the main characters, it’s almost always the secondary character whose personality or role gets changed or deleted, not the plot or major characters. Some secondary characters show up as minor characters or intended walk-ons, like a taxi driver, but develop such interesting personalities that they turn into secondary characters as the writer writes. Which segues nicely into writing one’s way into characters in general.

Writing one’s way into the characters is just what it sounds like – the writer has the plot roles and maybe the name of a character, and they find out what each character is like by writing scenes that include that character. This comes in two varieties – the writers who, like Roger Zelazny, develop a character by creating and writing a scene from the character’s backstory that is never intended to become part of the actual story, and the ones who develop their characters as they write the story itself.

Most writers I know do a bit of both – they work out at least some of what their main characters are like before they start writing, and then they make up/find out more stuff about them as they go along. The important thing when going from plot to characters is to keep checking back to make sure that the people you’ve made up will do the things the plot says they do (or if not, that you like whatever they will do better than what you initially thought up).

Next up, going the other way (characters to plot).

  1. I think it’s fair to say that this has to be a two-way process even if it’s heavily biased in one direction. The Fugitive Prince plot will become much more specific once we know who the Evil Councilor is, because that will determine the details of just how he goes about it…

  2. Interesting. I seem to start out with a protagonist and the germ of a plot (aka Chapter One), and the other characters spring up like mushrooms as the plot calls for them. I started out with a man and a robot. Ensuing mushrooms included a businessman who turned out to be a secondary villain, a smartass kid, a woman doctor, a wise old scholar, a guy who runs a second-hand tech shop, and a government executive, terrified that he’s going to screw up *again* and be sent to someplace worse than Vesta. The major villain is still a stormcloud in the distance, known principally (thus far) by his correspondence. 🙂

  3. Fascinating. If we ever meet beings from another planet, I wonder if they’ll manage to seem more alien than writers with diametrically different processes?

    I start from characters, which is not news, but apparently I can’t put myself into the headspace of starting from plot even for the sake of demonstration.

    “The Evil Councilor murders all of the Royal Family except the young Prince, who escapes with his Loyal Bodyguard and goes into hiding; years later, when the Prince is grown, he sets out to reclaim the throne. Along the way he meets people who will help him in the final confrontation.”

    To me, even this sounds like a character-centric starting place. I hadn’t even finished reading the description before my brain said, “So, about this Prince….” I had to put the brakes on rather firmly to keep him from developing a personality on the spot, and then demanding that I write a book about him.

    (This is not a complaint. I love seeing how other people’s brains work, even if it makes my own hurt. 🙂 )

  4. Three thoughts:

    1. Part of my mind wants to start twisting this plot into a parody or subversion of the original “straight” form, or to impose some other form of weirdness. (“The Royal Family were robots, ruling over a mostly-human planetary Kingdom.”)

    2. Another part wants to immediately start assigning names, because names are magic for me.

    3. And is this really a full plot, or just the first two-thirds of a plot? What form does the final confrontation take, and how does it end?

  5. Somehow, my subscription to your site stopped working during your redesign (looks great, by the way!) I think I was on vacation around that time, so I didn’t realize it until just now when I was going through and organizing my subscriptions in Feedly. But, now I’ve fixed the subscription link and I think I’m now subscribed again. Hopefully.

  6. So that’s what they meant by casting characters. I thought it meant open casting for walk-ons. Get a virtual interview room, have a bunch of shadowy figures line up outside, start letting them in one at a time.

    First man enters.
    Me: Tell me about yourself.
    First man gives a bunch of description and life history.
    Me: And what makes you think you’d be good as a [story roll].
    First man explains his take on the roll.
    Me: Paraphrase this bit of dialogue.
    First man does as requested.
    Me: *takes notes, puts a bit about first man on a list* Next!

    Carrot (a vegetable, not Terry Pratchett’s character) enters.
    Me: You’re a carrot.
    Carrot: Yes. I’d be a great [story roll].
    Me: I don’t want a talking, ambulatory carrot in [story roll]. I may have a casting call for dream sequence or wizard’s garden later. Next!

    Second Man enters.
    I give him the standard interview. He gives me a fascinating life history and skill set that doesn’t belong in this story. I jot down notes for a different book and file them under ‘W’

    A few interviews later, second man comes back.
    Me: You’d do better in a different story. You’ll be the main character.
    Second Man: Look, I poked around back there. You have five other stories files under ‘W,’ and that’s one of the less full letters of the alphabet. You’re not likely to get to them until the next ice age. You’re writing this story now, and I’m going to be in it. My name’s K. I can be female or ten inches taller, fake an accent, a master of disguise. You needed a spouse for the adviser, right? How about a walk on roll? I can carry a spear.
    Me: Security!
    Security comes in and drags K out.

    Later, when starting the book over after an accident deleted the first few scenes.
    Me: K, what are you doing behind that desk? What happened to the clerk I had sitting there?
    K: The accident traumatized him and he refused to come in so the casting director said I could play the part.
    Me: I’m the casting director, and I did not.
    K: Just give me a chance. You’ll probably delete this scene anyway.
    Me: (still too upset about the accident to be thinking clearly) Fine. Whatever.

    • Pahahaha! I’ve always got a part for an ambulatory carrot 😀 This made my morning, SML!

  7. *Looks up* *winces* Erm, sorry about the long post. *slinks back off into lurkerdom*

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