Characters and Plots

I bet you’d remember at least some of these ‘people’ and probably three or four:

  • Tom Joad
  • Atticus Finch
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • James Bond
  • Miss Marple
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Joe Leaphorn
  • Dave Robicheaux

They’re all characters in books – characters. The plots of the books that feature those characters are harder to recall.


Because readers tend to remember characters more than they remember plots and that, in turn, is because people relate to people more than they relate to things or events.

This fact tells me two things. First, over-the-top, outlandish plots are generally unlikely to work. Obviously some do work and they work quite well in the right, skilful hands. But my advice is to steer clear of sensationalism and concentrate on storylines that allow your characters to seem plausible and in which they, rather than the story of which they are a part, take centre stage.

Readers don’t need to know everything about your characters to relate to them. Sometimes what is left out is just as important as what is put in. And what is put in must serve a conscious purpose: it shows us something about the character that helps explain who they are but more importantly why they do the things they do.

Take physical features. We only need to know that there is a mole on your main character’s cheek or that she wears a blue scarf if this has some relevance to his or her motivation or role in the story. Too much description slows the narrative down (remember most fiction these days takes the ‘page-turner’ form) and can smother in excessive detail the character you are trying to present.

What is vital is for the reader to be able to understand what makes a character tick and why they react to things the way they do and act in response the way they do.

We each have our own mental profile of the characters we create. But that’s rarely enough. Try finding an image (on the internet or in a magazine) that resembles each of your characters. Paste it in a notebook then, over a period of weeks or even months, jot down details. Where are they from? Where did they go to school? How old are they? Who are their family members? Who are their friends? What do they like to do, eat, listen to? What don’t they like? What are their dreams? Their fears?

Not all of this information will be written about in your book but all of it is needed for you to know your characters. Enjoy the process of fleshing each of them out. Don’t rush it in your eagerness to “write”. As I wrote in the first blog post, this is a necessary part of the process of writing and done well it will save you time when you come to start tapping on your keyboard.

Eventually your characters will want to dictate actions and reactions to you. They will “tell” you that they wouldn’t do something you want them to do or that they want to do something you don’t want them to do. That’s why it is important to know them well so that you can control them and not the other way around. When characters start “talking” to you in your sleep, however, you’ll know you have created them in a plausible manner.

A good story involves what is called a ‘character arc’. This refers to what changes eventuate for a character as a result of his or her involvement in the story. Does a selfish character become a selfless one? Does a pessimist become more of an optimist? Does a tortured individual find a way to be released from their torment? Is a bad person redeemed?

Once we have our character arc we then have to fashion the plot to deliver the critical moments in the story that produce change and we have to explain the motivations of the character so that a reader can discern why the character feels they way they do and why the reaction has the impact on the character that it does.

So which comes first – plot or characters?

The answer is a bit of both. There are no stories without characters and no characters without stories that involve them. Most authors have a sense of a story – that is a plot and its characters – before they start planning a book in detail but each of those elements must connect in a logical, and easy for the reader to follow, way. So don’t get bogged down early in the elaborate details of either plot or character(s). Concentrate on how the two are meant to connect and then work on the fine details of the connection later.

Things will change as you go, of course. You may tweak the plot quite substantially, realise that more or different scenes have to be introduced to fully explain your character arc(s), you may even have to introduce additional characters to help support the story and carry it along. As long as you have your overall plan with the main elements connecting, none of that will be too hard to incorporate.

Make your characters credible by drawing on your own life experiences. Characters who are composites of people we know or have known, whose dialogue draws on things that have been said to us (or that we’ve heard), and whose reactions to events we have actually witnessed will be far more believable than complete products of the imagination. Creativity is found in how we weave together the things we know and have experienced more than in things we totally make up from scratch.

Try to distinguish the voice of each of your characters so that they don’t all ‘sound’ alike on the page. I’ll look at this aspect next time.

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