Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Character is plot

Did anyone else read this week's New York Times Sunday Book Review of John Grisham's new collection of short stories? The one that said, "This illuminates a central problem with Grisham’s fiction: plot rules. His novels promiscuously reverse the writerly adage “character is plot,” to the point that plot often becomes the main character, leading the human characters around by the nose when necessary."*

Next question: am I the only one who'd never heard this "writerly adage" before?

Because I'm thinking it could have saved me a decent amount of time.

The last big sticking point in revising my first novel was thinking that something else had to "happen" in Act 3. Thanks to a Novel Development class (taught by Audrey Beth Stein), I realized that the problem was in fact that I didn't know what my main character's final emotional arc was (although I knew where she had to end up). Once I got a better sense of what was going on in her head, I didn't need to contrive for anything major to "happen." Her voice guided me, and the action revealed itself.

And last night I went to a seminar called Plotting the Novel (taught by Michelle Hoover), that emphasized the philosophy that character determines plot. The classroom writing exercises included determining your protagonist's primary desire, primary strength and flaw... yep. Once again, I suspect that I've been stuck on my current work-in-progress largely because I don't have a good enough sense of what my (new) main character wants.

For someone who writes character-driven pieces, I can be quite obtuse about this.

I had previously heard the idea that every novel needs to have a "signature": a single sentence that shows the full arc of the novel. Popular examples include: madman goes hunting for a white whale (Moby Dick), poor boy tries to win heart of rich girl (The Great Gatsby), mother seeks to bring her family home for one last Christmas (The Corrections).

But, I'd read some rather weak signatures without realizing they were weak -- beautiful woman marries the wrong man (Anna Karenina) -- and as a result, I hadn't quite understood the full concept. Those first three examples reveal a driving force for a main character, whereas the last example is pretty static. It tells me what she did but not what she wants. Does she want to stay or leave? That's crucial. If you use that signature as your example, as I previously did, you can miss out on the whole point of the exercise.

But in last night's class, Michelle described the signature as the novel's river. Like the river in Huck Finn... when the characters step away from that river, the story falters. It is what leads them physically, and it is also representative of the freedom they seek... the driving force of the novel. It's not a state of being. It's in motion. It's going somewhere, and it can lead you.

And so, I think my six-word summary doesn't really cut it anymore. "Graphic designer is pregnant... now what?" It's cute and catchy, but it doesn't really tell you anything about who she is, or what she wants. The novel's river is this: young woman wants her life to go back to normal after accidental pregnancy. That's what she wants... although of course we all know that's not what she's going to get.

Now, let's go see what it is that my next character wants.


* Please note that the review also had good things to say about Grisham's talent and potential.


  1. Great post Carrie! I read and write character driven novels as well so this post really stuck with me.

    My MC wants a father that doesn't want her, and finds a brother she didn't know existed.

  2. This is a really good post; thanks for it.

    I like your second summary way better, which recommends that approach strongly.

  3. Very excellent and professional post that presents good topic for thought and discussion.

    The MC of my WIP wants peace of mind without taking responsibility for his wrongful actions.

  4. I think most of the mega-best sellers are more about plot than character (with the genre fiction exceptions). Thrillers, potboilers, etc., all have to do more with what happens than who it happens to, right? We're all turning the pages to find out "what happens next."

    The ideal situation is to have a great plot and great characters. I'm trying to find that balance myself, but probably won't anytime soon, since I'm only writing short stories... :)

  5. Oh Hell you just helped me break through a wall of my own.
    My MC wants to be human again but the truth is she wasn't in the first place.

  6. Your six word summary is only good because it's six words! By what standard was it supposed to represent your novel--because I did a game about distilling the novel into six words? It was just a game!

    Of course you must know what your character wants--and this is such a hard thing to figure out that I believe most people don't do it. Most novels I critique in my writing group have this problem and for novels in which there is a character arc of change, not knowing is deadly.

    Your summary, though, should contain your PLOT and if you're lucky, that reflects what the character wants. Your plot should equal premise + complication. Although I only know very little about your novel, you could say it's Girl finds herself unexpectedly pregnant [premise] while an unresponsive boyfriend complicates whether she wants to keep the baby or not. [complication]

    (I made up the complication because I don't actually know what it is.) But see, you can put in what the character wants by inferring--you could infer she WANTS her boyfriend to step up and be a man and support her by that. Maybe she wants stability, I don't know. But you could play with it so that the character arc is inferred via the complication.

  7. Part of my current problem is that my novel has several main characters to guide it through the plot. It can be difficult to adhere to the character-is-plot concept when there's "so many hands in the cookie jar." Yah?

  8. This is perfect. Just an utterly perfect post about writing. I LOVE the river concept. It's going to help me move forward with writing more on my novel and working on revisions.

  9. What does my character want or desire? To keep her cafe alive. It's not going so well.

  10. Voidwalker, our teacher last night emphasized that we should simplify, simplify... look hard: are there any characters that are pretty much doing the same job as far as moving the plot along? Keep one, drop the other, and merge the needed personality traits.

    Sierra, my original "signature" was pathetically close to that 6-word fun exercise. Before the class, I probably would have said, "young woman reevaluates life after accidental pregnancy." True enough, but not terribly powerful.

    And, I think the complication needs to be separate. It's implied that there will always be a complication in fiction: the white whale will be elusive and brutally hard to take down, poor boys have trouble getting rich girls in that era and society, and the mother is the ONLY one who wants Xmas at home. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the challenges are... it only matters how the focal characters react to them.

    I think. I'm obviously still figuring this all out. :-P

  11. what does my protagonist desire... gosh.. I'm gonna have to think about it.

  12. I'm a big believer in knowing what your characters want. It's how I know how the story ought to go.

    My MC wants to win the heart of the boy next door, literally, while keeping secret her role as school gossip columnist.

  13. This is an excellent post, Carrie, and very helpful to me at the moment. I'll soon be revising my novel (boy, I've said that for weeks now), and mine is very character-driven - so much so that I often wonder if there IS a plot.

    So, with much thought, here's my one-line synopsis: A woman longs to return to her childhood home, a secret underground village where her first love lives, but she's reluctant to abandon her husband and daughters on the surface.

  14. I hadn't heard that addage either, but it makes sense, depending on your genre.Not so much with the Cussler/"my-dad-reads-those" types, but it takes all kinds, eh?

  15. Simplify huh? It's not finished yet, so I know I can take that advice and work with it. I'll see what I can do.

  16. This is stuff that i had finally gotten a grip on a few months ago. It's also why i think my Nano turned out so well (i had outlined beforehand the two MC's flaws, strengths and concrete and abstract desires) and why my other WIP is failing.
    Have you ever looked at the snowflake method? I've used the first 5 steps and i think it really helps me to tackle some of those issues before i start, which then makes the writing much easier.
    I had the same issue of needing "something to happen" in my WIP, and though something does indeed happen, it happens because of one MCs flaw and moved to story forward in a way that worked perfectly

  17. Ack! After reading this very important post, I finally made myself define my protagonist's motives (wants instant gratification; likes being depended on; concerned with mortality), and now I'm worried he's a self-insert. Has anyone else noticed that every worthwhile piece of writing advice leads to more work? I'm off to do some detailed individuation!

    Thanks for helping me improve at the art I love.