Plot – Character = zzzzz

There are some things in life where inequality is okay, even expected.  For instance, most people favor using one hand over the other for fine motor skills.  In school, many students are classified as either athletic or academic.  It is typical for people to be creative or analytical, less common to be an equal mix of both (but wouldn’t that be great?)  Finally, most writers are either plot-driven or character-driven.

Too bad imbalance isn’t acceptable in writing fiction.  I’m a plot-driven writer, no doubt.  I hear a news story and my mind starts thinking of the twists that could turn it into fiction.  A friend tells me about a funny interaction and I’m thinking of how to mold it into a story.  I’ve got pages of ideas.  Ideas aren’t a problem.  Interesting people to follow my scripts – now, there’s the stumbling block.

The character-driven writer has pages of intriguing people waiting for something to happen.  They create characters so vivid that I’d swear I could feel their heartbeat thumping on the pages.  These fictional people are so real that I miss them as soon as I read the last word.  Character-driven writers possess the part of my brain that lies dormant.

I know that in order to have a memorable story, I need equal parts plot and character.  Neither element is powerful enough to carry the other.  The story is only as strong as its weakest piece.  So, I’m left with a choice:  handle my character-development deficiency like I address my absence of abs (do nothing, while eating chocolate) or dedicate myself to building my character development muscles.

Big fat plot...itty bitty character

I finished my first draft of the character development story of a main character in novel number two.  The good news is that the story does have a beginning, middle and end.  That bad news?  My puny characters have never been more obvious.  Rather ironic considering that my goal in this story was to concentrate on character development. 

On the positive side, I did focus on the main character’s interactions with others, her feelings and her emotions.  I think this helped clue the reader in to her motivations.  But when I read the first draft, I wasn’t moved.  I didn’t bond with her.  I finally realized that my character looked like this:

Who is she?

That’s right – I didn’t include any information as to my main character’s physical appearance, except for one reference that could have been interpreted to mean she was tall.  Here’s another issue where balance is key.  Who wants to read a physical description that’s a run-on sentence covering every attribute?  Or what about, “she looked just like <insert celebrity name>”? 

I’m back to the character drawing board.  This time around, maybe I will give her high cheekbones, an easy smile, lightly tanned skin or espresso colored eyes.  Or I could grab a dark chocolate bar, kick my feet up onto my desk and make her a dead ringer for Carrie Underwood.


32 thoughts on “Plot – Character = zzzzz

  1. Melissa May 12, 2011 / 7:15 AM

    This imbalance is currently driving me batty. Bless you for writing this now. My current project is my pride and joy… but I don’t have any plot. None. I have a slew of wonderful characters and I started this project with a voice. 12k in, I don’t have a materialized voice with wonderful connections and stability and emotions and I am totally connected to these people when I reread my manuscript………

    and now I’m at a standstill because I have no idea what’s going on. None. Things are happening, but I don’t know to what extent, you know? I went into this project totally blind, hoping this would have started to make a remote path by now. Alas. I’m lost. Time to hunker down and get some idea of what I’m doing. Flex those plot muscles! Rawr!

    • Melissa May 12, 2011 / 7:16 AM

      Sigh. I wish I could edit these suckers. Anyway. I DO have a materialized voice with wonderful connections and stability, etc etc etc.

      • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 4:45 PM

        🙂 I’ve left a wake of grammatical errors on comments I’ve left all over the blogosphere.

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 4:43 PM

      You are my opposite (can I borrow your brain, please?) I have a loose plot but feel like the characters are just placeholders. I do feel your frustration – just in reverse. (Does that even make sense?!)

      While you’re flexing your plot muscles, I’ll be doing character ab crunches. “Rawr!” (as you say ;))

      Good luck, Melissa! Thanks for sharing your imbalance issue – it does help to know I’m not the only one who fights this.

      • crumbl May 13, 2011 / 12:40 AM

        Here’s a radical thought … find someone with whom to collaborate who compliments your weakness with their strength? or at least confer about your mutual roadblocks.

        One of the writers I very much admire, personally and professionally, had this to say about her first novel and the process, and I totally agree, although not everyone works that way:

        SP: I started while I was a practicing psychotherapist. I remember
        “writing a novel” was one of those “someday” plans. But then, as I got
        older, I realized that way too often, those “somedays” never come. So
        with no plot in mind, I sat down at my computer and just started with
        one sentence, “My name is Sophie Green.” I knew I’d make her a
        psychiatrist since that was my profession for 22 years. The cliché is
        true. “Write what you know.” But I didn’t know the plot; I sort of followed
        it while it unraveled itself. My characters just seemed to appear on
        their own… blossomed… and I followed them along. As I have told
        many patients and friends, just take the first step in any venture. Just
        the first.

        You’ll find the way, JT. I have faith in you.

        • jannatwrites May 13, 2011 / 9:31 PM

          Nice story, Crumbl. It’s cool how everything seemed to unfold. I agree that ‘someday’ doesn’t come, so we have to make an effort to start ‘now.’

          As for me, I’m feeling a bit like I did in high school right before I attacked my math book in a fit of frustration, so I’m going to leave it alone for a few days and see if a fresh(er) mind helps.

          Thanks for offering your support – I do appreciate it 🙂

  2. SuziCate May 12, 2011 / 7:17 AM

    I am a firm believer that chocoalte handles all situations!

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 4:46 PM

      Chocolate does comfort me, but I’m gaining too much weight 😦 I wish exercise comforted me…

  3. SAS Fiction Girl May 12, 2011 / 9:02 AM

    Character appearance: Occasionally, I’ll see a stranger who has a striking appearance, and I try to think of how I’d describe the shape of his or her face and its features for a story, so the reader can form the correct impression. It’s something I struggle with – enough to make me batty!
    Character personality: I no longer believe those disclaimers in books, movies, and TV shows which claim that any similarity between the characters and any persons, living or dead, is merely coincidental. That’s so much legalese hogwash. Nearly every writer admits to basing characters on people he or she already knows. Sometimes, they get fancy and combine two or more people into one new character.
    There is a certain satisfaction in creating a whole new person with his/her own quirks and moral code, but sometimes…ya gotta cheat. 🙂

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 4:49 PM

      I’ve always thought those “cover your tail” disclaimers were a joke, too. I’m all for “cheating” if it gets me a memorable character. I suppose this character description is going to be like much of life – the more I work with it, the better it will be. I hope.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jen.

  4. carldagostino May 12, 2011 / 9:25 AM

    “These characters are so real I miss them as soon as I read the last word.” I understand what this feels like. I read novels in small increments: in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting for a meeting to begin and a dozen pages before bedtime. So it takes two weeks. So I do bond with them because they have been part of my days for an extended period of time. So I do miss them when the novel is finished. I suppose if the author bonds with the characters it enhances the chance that the reader will too.

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 4:54 PM

      Characters are kind of like children. If the author can’t bond with the characters, it’s unlikely that the reader will. I have only had a couple characters where people wanted to know what happened next – I want them all to be that way.

      I’m glad you stopped by, Carl!

  5. Carol Ann Hoel May 12, 2011 / 10:20 AM

    This balance is critical. I, too, am a plot driven writer. The characters in my mind must find their way into my writing. The characters are real in my thinking, but only sketchy information gets onto the page, especially in the first draft. Perhaps now that the plot has played out in my mind and has made its way into words, beginning, middle, and end, I can go back and transfer those character traits and motives from my imagination where they live into the fabric of my story.

    Could it be that your characters, which seem weak when you read what you’ve written about them, are live and well in your mind and just need to live in your story through another set of revisions, until they blossom in full?

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 4:58 PM

      I’m going to be following the same path you are – filling the the missing character pieces after the first go round. I think it’s possible that you are correct – In my effort to avoid long chunks of description, I often miss key pieces of information. Maybe my “normal” is going to be boring characters until I add several layers of revisions. Ugh.

  6. Tori Nelson May 12, 2011 / 12:07 PM

    “pages of intriguing people waiting for something to happen”… SO well put it made me clap at my desk! I tend to be less action/plot based, too!

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 4:59 PM

      So you are another ‘character’ person….I’m super-jealous of you right now 😉

      I’m sure you will find your plot, Tori!

  7. nrhatch May 12, 2011 / 12:40 PM

    If the characters are interesting enough, I could read an entire book with them just sitting around chatting poolside.

    If they are cardboard cutouts (ala Danielle Steel), you could put them in the most intriguing situations and I wouldn’t care what happened to them.

    You’re getting there: I will give her high cheekbones, an easy smile, lightly tanned skin or espresso colored eyes.

    Good luck finding the right balance.

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 5:01 PM

      Thanks, Nancy. I have faith I will get there…eventually. I do remember your opinion of Danielle Steele, and I certainly don’t want to that 🙂

  8. widdershins May 12, 2011 / 12:59 PM

    Maybe using famous faces is the way to go until they become clearer as the story progresses. I start out with a rough image that sometimes doesn’t become fully clear until the last edit.

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 5:03 PM

      Thanks for your insights, Widdershins. Maybe it’s not all that uncommon to have such a sketchy character at this point. I’ll keep working at it…

  9. Blossom Dreams May 12, 2011 / 1:06 PM

    I’m in the process of returning to writing and starting to work on my first novel, so I’m going to keep your awesome posts in mind. Personally, I have to be able to relate to the characters in a book – or certainly the main ones. Maybe not relate to them…just imagine them and understand their motives.

    I too have read books where I am left wondering weeks later what the characters are actually doing now. Perhaps you should go back to reading some of the books where you really love the characters – perhaps you can draw some more pointers from them? I can see how getting the balance must be very difficult xx

    • jannatwrites May 12, 2011 / 5:06 PM

      My posts are generally for entertainment, but it would be great if you find something useful in them. I do agree that we have to go along with the logic behind the character’s actions.

      Re-reading is a great idea. I’m sure I’ve still got some books on the shelf that paint characters how I wish I could.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your ideas, Chloe. I appreciate it 🙂

  10. pattisj May 12, 2011 / 9:46 PM

    Thanks for sharing. I’m learning so much about writing from my blogging friends. And SuziCate has me well-educated on chocolate…:)

    • jannatwrites May 13, 2011 / 7:47 PM

      Education on chocolate is the most important thing – I’m so glad that SuziCate has your back 😉

  11. knotrune May 13, 2011 / 1:30 PM

    Physical description is not always important in a viewpoint character. We are so used to the movies that we may think it matters more, but I read somewhere a long while ago that it is actually beneficial if your mc is only vaguely described. Then they are more of a blank canvas that the reader can sort of superimpose themselves on, rather than making a barrier. Of course, other characters need to be seen visually by the viewpoint character, so unless he/she is blind, they need a bit more! In fact, even if the mc is blind, then you’d have to describe people by sound or smell…

    A fringe benefit also relating to movies – more choice of actors to play the main role!

    • jannatwrites May 13, 2011 / 9:39 PM

      Good point, Knotrune. Interesting take on have a blind MC – I never considered the difficulties that would present.

      Unfortunately, none of my characters in that story are described very well in terms of physical appearance. After a couple days away from it, I’ll see what I can do with that group of people in my story.

      I’m glad you stopped by and shared your perspective. Thanks!

  12. jacquelinemerrill May 13, 2011 / 2:32 PM

    I’ve found that Ian McEwan’s books normally have the perfect balance of plot and character, something I’m often looking for in writers. I suggest you study some of his books and look at his techniques, if you haven’t already.

    • jannatwrites May 13, 2011 / 9:50 PM

      I haven’t read Ian’s work, but I’ve added him to my reading wish-list. In fact, I’ll be at the library next week to pick up some books for my son, and three of his books are available, so I’ll pick one. Did you have a favorite?

      Thanks for visiting today and offering this reading suggestion, Jacqueline!

  13. Alive aLwaYs May 14, 2011 / 4:49 PM

    That was really funny.
    I was so busy reading that I was not looking at the picture below, yeah it happens sometimes with me, but then “my character looked like this.”
    So, I looked below and damn it, where’s the face!

    • jannatwrites May 14, 2011 / 8:44 PM

      Glad you liked it, Alive. She will have a face…or at least a pair of eyes when I’m done 😉

      I’m glad you stopped by and thought enough of the post to comment. Thanks!

  14. Kavita May 16, 2011 / 11:02 PM

    It’s amazing to see you write about this, Janna… cuz just 2 days back, I was reading this book about fiction-writing!! Yea yea, I really wanna try my hand at short stories now (in addition to poetry), and I seem to have stories to write about, but never find the right words! So I thought, what the heck! Let me learn! And the first thing is read is “characters” and “putting life into those characters”… there was this one line that caught my attention.. “A character should have a history, even though you may not include it in your story.” Now that part in bold REALLY made me think… and I said to myself.. “oh yea, this makes else will I connect with my character!”

    So anyway, your post today has really hammered that idea into my head! I loved the way you showed that question-marked face.. I get it, girl! I totally get it!

    I sincerely hope we can overcome this character challenge, and manage to put LIFE into those people we intend to create…

    BEST WISHES, my dear!!

    • jannatwrites May 16, 2011 / 11:42 PM

      I’d love to read a short story written by you. I bet you’d do well, since you are well-practiced in describing and evoking emotions in few words.

      The background history is what I’m trying to accomplish in this group of short stories. For this first character, the short story takes place fifteen years before the the novel picks up. I don’t know if it will work or not, but I’m experimenting. The worst that can happen is I feed the paper shredder, right?

      Thanks for your kind words, Kavita. I wish you the best as you jump into the challenge of developing your characters 🙂

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