Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Notes on Craft: Plot-driven vs. character-driven writing

Because you asked, today's post is Notes on Craft and then some "seasonal" photography.

Notes on Craft: plot-driven v. character-driven writing

I am a believer in the school of character-driven vs. plot-driven. Not everyone believes there is a distinction in how writers work, I however firmly subscribe to this church. They have a great facility after all.

What's Plot-driven? Mystery writers are the easiest illustration of plot-driven writing. The mystery writer starts with a dead body. And many times the writer knows who killed him before she starts writing. Then she schedules twists and turns, red herrings and important revelations into the structure of her novel in order to reveal the killer to her reader. Without this plot there is no murder-mystery. However intriguing a writer may make her novel of this genre, she will remain heavily dependent on the structure of her plot.

What's Character-driven? It's harder to pin down a specific genre to illustrate this method of creating a story, but most (not all) literary fiction follows it. When I write I focus on the character and let a couple of conversations or arguments form in my mind that the character is having. Then I ask why would he fight about these things? Why is this important? How do the others react? And those questions give me some surrounding material; a little back story a little forward motion. And that forward motion, and those questions keep me going.

What you'll hear most often from character-driven writers is that the "story developed a life of its own" or "it didn't go at all where I thought it would." This is because the features the author thought she was writing toward weren't necessarily compatible with the character she had developed. She could have forced the character to adhere to the plot she had envisioned, but being character-driven means making the choice to deviate from well laid plans just for the sake of an unscheduled road trip. And who knows what you'll find on those back roads?

Can the two be combined? I'll go out on a limb, and say that once a writer finds a means of creating fiction that works for her, and is both satisfactory and believable for the reader, she doesn't spend much time analyzing her process to figure out where on the plot/character continuum she falls.

I tried plotting, and it was a flat, 2-D story. This is a common trend when new writers look back at work that they had meticulously plotted. The answer is to spend more time beefing up your characters. I've heard countless suggestions for "character questionnaires" as a means of fleshing out a character. Buy into this with caution. Knowing what your character's favorite color is, or what day of the week they were born on won't help them seem 3-D. If you find a questionnaire with open ended questions like how would you feel if you found out you were adopted? or what would you do on finding your lover/spouse in bed with someone else? or what is your idea of the perfect death? Basically open ended questions that you wouldn't ask on the first date because they're "too personal."

I've started with my main character, and she's great, but I'm having trouble adding plot to the story. When you're starting a story because the characters interest you, I think approaching it as "adding plot" is a frame of mind that makes it easy to get stuck.

If you can think of it less as "plot" -- less some sort of big framework of events, or a series of hoops for your character to jump through -- and just concentrate on "what happens to the character next," it makes the element of action that much easier to deal with.

Frequently, writers say they find it hard to "let bad things happen" to their characters, and I suspect that might be as much a problem as the "plotting." You don't want bad things to happen to your characters, just like you don't want bad things to happen to real people that you know. But if something doesn't happen to characters there's no story. Save your wishing, praying and hoping for your family (and you can always send good lottery winning-mana my way). But characters need strife. You have to take the character and make them live in a town that turns out to be right on top of a suddenly active volcano -- and that's all you need!

You don't need a big old plot, you just need this one inciting incident: volcano discovered under house. And if your writing is character-driven the character will then react to the volcano. Sure, any sane person would get out of the house, but does your character go back for the cat? For the bag of stolen diamonds? For the laptop with all her manuscripts on it?

Next you must ask her to act in a preemptive manner. Does she get in the car and drive for higher ground? Does she warn the town? Call the President of the United States? Call her volcano chasing friends and set up video equipment to watch the flows?

I've discovered that "letting bad the bad thing happen" often takes the form of my worst fear for the moment. Have you ever watched a movie and cringed even though nothing was happening, because you were certain that it was all set up for something awful to happen? Scary teen movies love to do this. We all cringe as the semi-important character walks through a darkened alley alone, or through a barn filled with power tools and scythe-like blades, or slips into to the eerie lake/lagoon. I get the same feeling of doom with my characters, just without the swamp creatures and axe murders.

I was writing a conversation between my female character and her guy friend and all of a sudden I knew I had set up the situation for an affair. I didn't want it to happen -- he was a nice guy after all -- but that was the "bad thing" I saw coming, and so I wrote it, even though I hadn't "plotted" it previously.

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