Plot vs. Character: Leaving Room for Magic

by Martina Boone
published in Writing

Writing fiction is alchemy. We can have all the ingredients for a great story and still miss that wow factor that makes it all come together, makes our work transform from words on a page to a living, breathing entity with the possibility to burrow into someone else’s consciousness. And we all know plenty of flawed stories, right? Stories that have plot holes or imperfect writing that still manage to capture that something special that speaks to us long after we have closed the book. So which kind of a story is better? The one that is technically perfect? Or the one that leaves us with something to build on in our own lives?

Clearly, we all prefer to read the one that’s magic, but as writers, it’s easy to get trapped inside the techniques of writing and overlook the heart our stories need, the alchemy. We have to leave room for the magic within the writing process. Chances are, that’s the part of storytelling we fell in love with in the first place.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a pantser. I use plot and character worksheets and write a chapter by chapter synopsis so long it’s essentially a first draft—mostly in dialogue. Until recently, I thought that was enough. What I’ve learned though is that knowing only one character well before I finish plotting is cheating. Cheating the story, not the just the writing process.

The magic in writing happens between characters. The magic is in character quirks and backstories that motivate current action, and in the endearing and terrible things that characters do to each other.

Yes, some of that is layered on top of action that can be considered an extrinsic plot. But most of the plot should be character driven.

Really, storytelling comes down to two small words: versus and why. Conflict and motivation.

Your characters each want something. Craft your story so that what they want is mutually exclusive. If one character wins, the other loses. Make them equally strong, equally determined, equally motivated, and then sit back and watch what happens. The story will write itself. Like magic.

Even though your story is naturally going to have a protagonist and an antagonist, someone your readers are going to root for and someone your readers are going to root against, the choice and outcome shouldn’t be clear cut. An antagonist must be equally fascinating. Equally powerful. Equally sympathetic or at least equally well-motivated. Alternatively, you can have two main characters whose needs and desires oppose each other and a third person whose relatively small role in the story nevertheless creates complications that force the two main characters to act against their own interests. (Read The Scorpio Races for a great example of this.) You can structure your plot in endless different ways, but if you begin and end with what your characters want and how that conflicts with what other characters want, your story will begin to breathe.

This doesn’t happen overnight. Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, you have to take the time at some point in the creation of your story to question everything. Up the stakes. Make the versus, the conflict, bigger and more directly opposed between your characters. Deepen the why, the motivation, all the way around.

I don’t do worksheets because I enjoy doing worksheets. I hate doing worksheets. I do worksheets because they give me a structure to get my subconscious working on a story. And lately, I do character worksheets before plot worksheets, because plot comes from character even when there is a lot of action. For myself, I have discovered that if I do it the other way, I’m not giving myself the opportunities to let my characters be themselves, but that’s a personal preference. I could just as easily write out a first draft and then go back and revise, but I tend to be anal about words on a page and once they are there, it is harder for me to see the big picture.

So, yes. I do the worksheets. I write my long, long synopsis scene by scene. And then I sit back and let the magic happen as I begin to write the story. If a character wants to do something other than I expected, I let her. If something doesn’t feel right, I don’t try to force it. Once I know my characters, the story is organic. All I’m doing is creating the board and letting the players move on it.

Have you read The Night Circus? It’s a wonderful metaphor for the writing process. Like Celia and Mario, the magicians in that story, we writers have rules we must follow as we create our stories. Rules not only of craft, but also of audience need and showmanship. Of publication. As writers, we begin to build our magic within the venue that is our storyboard, and we know the rules exist. We know there are acts to our stories, and turning points, and that action builds to a climax. We know that there are specific lengths for specific genres, and that there are emotional beats that have to happen at specific places. We also know that there are other magicians simultaneously creating stories, and that the circus proprietor—the publisher—can only put up so many tents at a time. We can’t control what the publishers choose to publish, or what other writers produce in a given year, or what the audience will want. We can’t worry about those things. We can’t alter the rules of structure and story length, of theme and syntax and rhythm. But we can bend them, stretch them, mold them to create something new and unique and beloved. Something magical.

That’s our job as writers. To weave illusions so real that they become real for our readers. Stories and characters so alive and three dimensional with sight, sound, smell, taste, touch… with flaws and hopes and dreams and fears… that they take flight before the last page is turned and continue flying after the cover is closed.

Stories like that aren’t written. They are rewritten. They are planned and revised and considered from multiple angles and layers. Worksheets and outlines give us the prompts that get our brains fully engaged in the process of creating multidimensional plot and character.

Whatever your writing process is like, whether you plot and worksheet and do three drafts, or do six extra revision drafts after the fact, don’t let the techniques shortchange you. Don’t limit yourself by thinking: I’m writing a character-based story. Or, I’m writing a plot-based story. All stories are based in character. All stories benefit from plot. Stuff as much of each into every story as possible. Always remember the versus. And always consider why.

If you’re into worksheets, here are a couple I use. One word of caution on the character worksheet though—it isn’t all encompassing. Leave plenty of room for freeform backstory. Even if you don’t use it in your actual narrative, it will provide the magical elements that add depth to the illusion.

Character Worksheet

Plot Complications Worksheet

Scene Conflict Worksheet

A Writer’s Preflight Checklist

I hope you find the worksheets helpful. But again, they are just tools to get you thinking. Don’t let tools or techniques psyche you out. Don’t overthink to the point where you leave out the room for magic to happen. You remember the feeling when you write something on a page and think: where did that just come from? Chances are, those are the things that are going to sell your story to agents, publishers, and ultimately to readers.

That’s what writing is all about, isn’t it? The living, breathing magic of characters and story.

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