Turning Characters Into Plot

So we are one week into NaNoWriMo, and I hope things are going well for all of the participants. But, if things are already starting to slow, I thought I’d spend a few minutes today talking about how to decide where to send your plot.

A story’s plot is one of those things where you think there’s really only one way it could go, and all you have to do is unveil it. In reality, it’s more like a maze, with some paths leading to dead-ends and others just double-backing to take you onto a path you’ve been on before. There’s no one true story. Then again, taking your story in one direction may give it more overall meaning than taking it in another, and the hard part is just figuring out which is which.

The key to choosing the narrative path has to be your characters. They are central to the story as a whole, in a way that goes beyond simply needing some entity to go through the motions of the plot. Plot gives the reader suspense. Character gives the reader growth and meaning, turning the story into something more than just a thrill-ride.

Here’s the trick. Characters need to grow during their trials. When you begin your planning with your characters, you learn a lot about them. Strengths and weaknesses should be on that list, not only in the material “is a master swordsman but can’t tell a lie to save their life,” but also on the deeper level. Something along the lines of “willing to follow along with others’ plans if it means being included” or “has a tendency to take things personally.”

You can find these character traits embedded in some of their more prominent, defining moments of their past. They do not have to have tragedy in their backstories, of course. Pain is relative, and characters may find betrayal from a friend hits just as hard as a parental figure leaving if the character has only dealt with the former.

It’s worth noting also that a character’s strength in one situation can be their weakness in another. They can be loyal, and if that loyalty is to someone good, it will take the character in a good direction, but their loyalty can blind them to a person’s faults, and instead send your character in a not-so-good direction.

So as you think about what trials to put your character through, consider what will test them the most. What kind of person should your character be by the end of it? As you brainstorm ideas, consider which potential plots would challenge them the most. Your character’s strengths should help them get through the worst of it, but in the moment where it matters most, when they have no weapon (internally or externally) to help them, what sort of conflict will, in the end, change them for the better?

It may be obvious, but the targeted character flaws should not necessarily help them improve into the person the character themselves want to be. Hopes regarding strength are often misguided. We are our own worst critics, after all, thinking that some of our strengths are actually a weakness, and vice versa. The characters’ trials should turn them into the person they need to be, rather than the one they hope to be.

Likely, you will know when you find it which plot takes your characters where they need to go. The good news is, even if it doesn’t, this is NaNoWriMo. Go with the flow. Enjoy the excuse to write without expectations. Run the marathon, and worry about improving for the next one later.

Happy writing!


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