How This Plot-First Writer Builds Characters (plot is used)

Posted: March 25, 2012 in Inkspots, Scribe Scribbles
Tags: , , , ,

When I was younger, I thought that there was something wrong with me because I used to tell myself stories when I was tired and couldn’t get to sleep. No one else I knew did that.  I had to be defective in some way then, I reasoned. Other kids read books when they were tired. I wrote one in my head.

Years later I met a girl who wrote stories, and told her my deep dark weird secret.

She laughed “Oh, I do  that, too” she said as we jabbered like magpies, swapping tidbits on our  stories and enjoying  our mutual fascination with words.  I went home and my feet didn’t touch the ground for days. I wasn’t so defective after all.  There were others like me!  And they did the same strange things that I did!

She never told anyone the stories though, and I began to find that I wanted someone to know the tale  that was swirling around back and forth between my ears.  The next time I was at a sleep over and we  girls were beginning to yawn like exhausted kittens refusing to sleep, I opened my mouth and out popped “Once upon a time…”

Silence. Stares. Then the words every story  teller longs to hear pinged out and shattered the waiting quiet.

“What happened next?”

At that moment I knew, there was no going back.  I also knew that characters I described were shadowy mist-people. None of them had specific features, and they drifted through my imagination in the cookie cutter shape of the heroes and villains I’d read about in other books.

I didn’t need them to be well-shaped, because when I was telling the story, my voice would give theirs inflection, and my face would mimic and mirror what they were looking like in the story.

I painted images in the air, my listeners sitting in thrall to the words, and it was only the plot that mattered.

This mind-set carried over into my writing where plot became king and tyrant. Characters were actors, waiting in the wings for their ques, and setting was nothing more than painted flats to be wheeled out and positioned when needed.

I was happy. I thought everyone wrote like this, then one day, I met a world builder.  This other writer, this other person like me, had characters that were so well thought out and so real, that they breathed on their own. They weren’t puppets she manipulated, they were people.  More than that,  her worlds were places that I wanted to visit, and to live. There was a culture she had created and a language  she had  shaped. Her story people had stories and a history.

I didn’t have  any of that

My poor faceless paper tigers cried into their root beers and sat around looking lost when the met the world builders characters.   Was I writing wrong?  I didn’t know what my character’s favorite foods were, or if they had a language, or a middle name. Some of them I didn’t even think had a last name. But for all their facelessness and vanilla ice cream personalities I loved them,  because they were my characters. I had to fix them and make them more like hers.

I got books out of the library on creative characters and how to build them and how they worked in best-selling books. I learned all about the cogs and pulleys that are needed on the inside of a paper tiger to make them more believable and well-rounded.  I started using the techniques  and after a few weeks, I had ticking clock paper tigers that made a lot of dings and beeps and warpules as they moved about, but they were more  unreal than when they were just paper tigers.  Gears poked out of their elbows,  sprockets dangled from their finger tips, and they lurched about in an ungainly fashion with bleary looking expressions and overstuffed frames.  In despair, I unmade them all and put their pieces away, quietly holding funeral services.

Years later, they came back shaking off the soil and paper ash from their frames and looking at me in mute appeal.  After I climbed down off the ceiling fan and took a better look at my zombies, I found the problem. I was a plot-first writer trying to be a world-builder and had haphazardly crammed their frames with everything I thought they needed to have.  Slowly I removed their favorite ice cream flavors, their middle names, and some but not all of their back story.  It was hard, it was like looking at chair that had twelve arms and sixteen legs and four places to sit, and deciding what I needed to remove and what needed to stay so it was a usable piece of furniture.

I discovered that if I needed to have a paper tiger have the ability to pick locks for the plot’s sake, then they needed to have been taught as a lock smith at some point. The plot need filtered backwards into their story. Bit by bit, line by line, I wove plot need into characteristics and one cold gray morning, I found that my paper tigers were breathing on their own. Their personality and attributes  fit them, and they were no longer actors. Oh sure, there might be a passing resemblance to an actor here and there, but not a concrete point-by-point match. They were not docile any longer either, and began balking at things I wanted them to do solely because the plot needed them to do that.  While that was a good thing in it made the story richer, it also made writing a slower process.

And there are days I’m not certain that I’m doing this “writing thing” the right way.  But at least I’m writing.

Today,  I have characters that are more three-dimensional and really do move and breathe on their own, but I also constantly have to go back and fine tune or re-tune their back story as I more forward with the plot. Plot  for me is still king, but unfortunately for it, it’s not a  sole ruling monarch. It’s balanced now by a quarrelsome and vexatious group of  Representative characters that will not let it have everything its own way.  Only time will tell if there will be a lasting peace between these two things, or whether revolution is brewing underneath all the niceties.

For those who are like me, plot-first writers, be encouraged that you don’t need to character-build the way that a world-builder does. You really don’t, and if you try, you’ll wind up most likely with overstuffed and freakish looking paper tigers. I did.  Try using plot to help you flush out your characters, and if you have to go back and retweak a character, then stop the plot and go back and retweak them.

And for you world builders, well, hang on to your rich and diverse universes, and don’t ever let anyone tell you that you spend too much time on them. You surprise and delight me. Keep on creating and if you have a chance, give a plot-first writer a leg up now and again. It’s really appreciated!

Encourage one another Scribes!

  1. Huh, I can actually relate to a lot of that. Except telling the stories out loud to people. I’m not too good at that. not fictional stories anyway. I’m generally quite dramatic when talking and in telling real stories, but when I create stories, it has to be on paper. (actually most times that’s electronic paper) do you start with outlines? Here’s another curious question, back then could you describe the bits of your world and universe and even draw a map (if you can draw) of them and the areas used in your story? Even more so than your characters? For some reason I can always see the whole surroundings of space and worlds like a movie, but the characters are much harder to actually see, even though most have personalities and history. you take the plot and make mini plots for everything needed in the plot. 🙂 that’s cool! sounds simple too, lol. I carry too much backstory in my head. 0.o

  2. Gee says:

    Enjoyed the read. I like your dialogic approach to plotting characters, too. In my blog (somewhere), I offer this tip: as a writer, be schizophrenic. In other words, have different characters contribute to the fabric of the story by offering a variety of views concerning the story’s topic, each from his or her own particular point of view: philosophical, theological, psychological, sociological, etc., or from different perspectives within one of these larger viewpoints, e. g., dualistic vs. materialistic or rationalistic vs. romantic. As a result, the issue that the story examines will be enriched. The trick is not to have the characters *sound* like a philosopher, a theologian, a psychologist, a sociologist, a dualist, a materialist, a rationalist, or a romantic, etc., but like ordinary “persons” whose points of view are naturally informed by these perspectives. Thanks for sharing your approach; I like it!

Be brilliant, be peculiar, be peculiarly brilliant.

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