As promised, today is when I’m going to talk about how character and plot are inseparable. Truthfully, yesterday was going to be the day I talked about how character and plot are inseparable, but yesterday I totally chickened out (the pressure! Don’t want to sound like an idiot — too late). My personal courage serum is an excess dosage of coffee, and let’s just say I’m now personally keeping Guatemala’s economy afloat.
Ok. So. Writers sometimes say they start with a compelling character and go from there. Often it’s just a sketch of someone who intrigues them, and they build a world around that character. Plot? An afterthought!
But what, dare I ask (and I dare), makes for a compelling character?
Let me tell you what a compelling character is not: a compelling character is not someone who is just like everyone else, pretty much gets along with everyone, and goes about their business unaffected by whatever happens. Can you imagine? “Once upon a time there was an average girl who ate her vegetables and brushed her teeth. She grew up, paid her taxes on time, and then she died. The end.”
Here’s what does make for a compelling character: 1) a character who starts off seemingly normal, only ensuing events reveal abilities and/or personality traits they never knew they had (e.g. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Jeff Abbott’s protagonists, et al). 2) a character battling internal demons (Holden Caulfield, Hamlet, Quentin Compson et al). 3) a relatively normal person observing a crazy world (Ishmael, Nick Carraway, Arthur Dent, et al).
There are tons more, and sometimes these archetypes are mixed up and combined. But the point is, at the heart of every compelling character who has ever walked the pages of a story is one thing: conflict. Or, rather, three things: conflict, more conflict, and still more conflict.
And how is that character’s conflict revealed? Through the plot! What good is an interesting character if they aren’t doing anything?
When an author says they start a story with an interesting character in mind, it’s just a different side of the same coin as an author who starts with a basic plot. It’s all conflict. To go back to the door metaphor from Thursday’s post, the conflict at the heart of an interesting character is what is opening the door and it’s why the character is trying to close the door. A character’s conflict forms the basis of the plot.
The plot tests a character and forces them to make choices. It reveals the, uh, compellingness of the character. Plot is what makes the character interesting (because the character is tested) and character is what makes the plot interesting (because we’re learning about the character).
And most importantly, the plot changes the character along the way. Every compelling character starts in one place and ends up in a different place, and how they get from point A and point B is the plot. (Think of Michael Corleone starting as a good guy and then ending up the don.) If the character isn’t a different person at the end of the story than the beginning, well, that’s not very interesting. Or compelling.
Now, some plots are better than others, and that’s another post for the future. Until then, coffee growers of the world, please keep up your good work.