How to Write a Character-Driven Plot in 4 Steps
Literary fiction writers tend to avoid plot. We’re trained to be plot snobs, focused only on character development and description and point-of-view, amongst other things. But your story can’t be plotless. Plot is tension, plot is drama, plot IS story.
What makes this element even harder is that in most of the literary fiction novels we love, the plot seems invisible. As readers, we DO focus on the characters and how they change over the course of the novel. Their motivations and fears and desires are so strong that we ignore the events that are pushing them toward and away from their goals. We focus on their evolution and forget about plot completely.
We must stop doing that. We must be conscious of the events going on behind the scenes driving these characters forward. We must bring plot to the forefront and know WHAT is happening and WHY it matters.
But, if we take it too far, if we have external events that are obvious and in our face, we’re not going to care about the characters as much. Stuff happens to them. And then they’re forced to deal with it. We stop caring about if this particular character reaches their individual needs, and only care about what happens in the end – Does he get the girl? Does she solve the crime? Is the resolution one I can accept? A lot of these stories are not interesting and don’t stick with us for a long time. Why? Because we focus exclusively on the plot and don't get invested in the characters.
This isn’t to say that plot-heavy stories are not quality work. There are plenty of stories where a lot of wild and crazy and loud things happen, and we still like them. Think of action-heavy stories like the James Bond series. Think fantastical sci-fi stories like Star Wars. Think of romance stories like Romeo and Juliet. Think of The Notebook. Think of mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. These stories don’t suck, and they have a LOT of loud plot stuff going on. So what's the difference?
The thing that makes a story a Real+Good Story is the why. This is what helps us distinguish between formulaic stories and interesting stories. Why do we care that this external plot event happened to this character? Why do we care how the character feels? Why do we care if the character does or does not reach their ultimate goal? What we’re looking to do is find causality, the “why” or the “because” of the story that makes it have the biggest impact possible.
We must learn to fuse plot and character together in order to create a story that feels seamless. Instead of thinking of these story elements as separate entities, we must link them together. To make a Real+Good Story, these elements must be inextricably linked, married, united, fused together so that there’s no possible way that they could exist separately with the same impact.
So, uh, how do we do that?
Step #1: Start paying attention to the existence of plot, ESPECIALLY in the stories where you don’t see one.
Take some time to reread some of your favorite stories. These can be short stories or whole novels or both (I’d suggest 2 shorts and 1 novel minimum). Every time something happens that moves the plot forward, make a note of it. Pay attention to both the WHAT is happening and the WHY does it matter.
Looking for a good short story to work with right now? Check out "Cold Pastoral" by Marina Keegan.
When you’re finished, map out how these stories work. You can make a chronological list of events, put them on Freytag’s Pyramid, find the doorways and disturbances, or distil them into the 3-Act Structure. (Bonus points if you can map them on all structures!). In each plot point from beginning to middle to end, you should know WHAT has happened and WHY we care.
Then write a brief summary, as if you were writing to a friend, of what happens. Write what exactly happens in this book, why the events carry so much weight, and why the reader should care about this at all. This only has to be a couple sentences, or maybe a short paragraph, because you’re trying to distil the plot, separate it from all the other awesome stuff going on in the story, so you can visibly see it.
I know you probably came here with the intention of figuring out YOUR plot, but hold off for just a minute PLEASE! This is important to do with your stories too, but DON'T DO IT YET! I promise we'll get to your own in just a bit. For now, just pay attention to your masters, and then apply the techniques to yourself. We've got to understand how others work before we can tackle our own. It will be helpful, I promise.
Make a habit of paying attention to plot when you read in the future. If you truly want to learn this skill, you’ve got to study how it works.
This is especially important in stories where the plot seems invisible. If you’ve ever read a story that you don’t know how to explain to others – “This story is so awesome and it’s about EVERYTHING!” – then you know the writer has done a good job. They’ve convinced you that the plot is natural, organic, and you believe that it’s just a snippet of an everyday life that adds up to a transformation.
But this is obviously not true.
When you look back at these stories, you may be shocked at how plot-heavy and loud they are. I know I was when I prescribed this exercise for myself. There are so many external events pushing these stories forward that I don’t know how I never noticed them before!
So how were they able to make us feel like nothing was going on? How were they able to make their plot invisible?
Need somewhere to take notes as you go? Grab the worksheets in the club!
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Step #2: Figure out your character’s desires and fears.
For plot to feel connected to character, there cannot just be external forces acting up all around the character. If there’s a thunderstorm AND THEN a power line falls on your character’s house AND THEN they have to deal with it AND THEN… we lose interest really quickly. We don’t care. Remember E.M. Forster's quote about the king and queen. We must know why.
External forces are necessary to get your story going. But with only external events in the story, the character becomes passive, simply reacting to the environment around them.
The thing that sucks the most? It’s easy to write characters who are passive. As writers, we are observers of the world. We pay attention to what’s happening and we document it. So, by default, our characters tend to be passive observers too. We create the conflict, the external events that cause something to happen in the story, but that’s not enough.
We want characters who are active, characters who have goals and take action to reach those goals. Instead of just having external forces moving the story forward, we need to have internal forces that conflict with those. All stories must have both.
External forces are what we’ve been talking about – throwing some crazy, dramatic event into play that causes your characters to react. External is when something happens.
The internal forces are your character’s desires and fears. This is what your character wants, what their goals are, what they need to have happen in order to complete the transformation the story requires. The internal forces are what truly should drive your story forward.
So yes, if you’re stuck and need something to move the story forward, find an external event and throw it in there. Make something crazy happen and have your characters react. But to make it have weight, you have to have them doing something more. You have to have meaning.
We are looking to find our character's goals, desires, and motivations that will propel the story forward and help it find meaning. The internal forces drive them, and we have to figure out what they are.
Sometimes these can be invisible too. Often, as people, we may think we want something, but later realize we actually were seeking something else. Your character might be avoiding their goals, not realize what their ultimate goals are, or think their goals are something else entirely. This is a difficult submersion into the subconscious.
You have to get to the root of it all. This is diving into the subtext, the themes, the core of what your story is about. Perhaps your character’s ultimate desire is xxxxxx, but they’re going about it in the wrong way. Perhaps they’re actively seeking something else entirely.
To figure this out, determine their conscious goal, and then constantly and consistently ask why until the true answer reveals itself. This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams, and much much more. This will give your character depth and make them more well-rounded. It ultimately makes them feel much more believable and human.
It can be rewarding in life, and in fiction, to have that epiphany moment, the crisis, the climax, the turning point. When you think everything exists in one certain light, and then to discover it as existing totally differently gives us satisfaction. It helps us grow and change and find meaning. This epiphany moment is your plot. (And see how it's directly tied to your character's desires? See what we did there?).
Take a look at the stories you distilled into plot points before. What were the character’s biggest fears, biggest desires? What were their ultimate goals? What does the character consciously think they want and how does that compare to what the larger theme, the “about” say they actually want? What steps did they take to move toward those goals? How did the external events conflict with the internal events?
And most importantly, what weight did they carry with it?
NOW you can start thinking about your story too. Ask these questions about your characters.
Step #3: Use their Desires to Figure Out Where to Go.
Once the character’s goals are decided you can begin to play with various events that would affect their journey to that goal.
First, consider the perfect outline. This will NOT be your story, because without any conflict you wouldn’t have any story. But we’re figuring this out to know the perfect path. If your character wanted to find true love, they would do some version of the following: 1) meet someone, 2) have a perfect first date, 3) have a perfect second date and so on, eventually 4) propose to them, 5) get married, and 6) live happily ever after. You could write this story, and many people have. But “other stuff” happens in the middle that makes it interesting.
Next, consider everything that could get in the way. Consider all possible conflicts both externally and internally. In our true love example, external events could be that she doesn’t like him back, or they show up for the date at different times, or in the wrong locations, or she’s married. Internal conflicts could be that she doesn’t believe in love because she comes from a family of divorce, or she’s not sure if he is the one, or she loves two people at the same time and isn’t sure who to choose.
Finally, consider all the possibilities of what could happen if they reach or don’t reach that goal. What would it mean for the story if the character succeeded or failed in reaching their desires? Here we are searching for the highest impact. We’re considering the overall message the story is trying to give. What ultimately happens will determine that.
Ask: What does the character gain from reaching their goals? What does the character lose by reaching their goals? On the opposite side, what does the character lose from not reaching their goals? What does the character gain by not reaching their goals?
In our love example, if our protagonist wants to find true love, what does he gain by finding it? Eternal happiness and confirmation of the belief that true love exists. What does he lose by finding it? Freedom of independent living. What does he lose by NOT finding true love? He doesn’t have anybody to love. Perhaps a disruption of the long-held belief that true love exists. What does he gain by NOT finding true love? Loneliness.
Then you have to figure out which one carries the most weight and is the most interesting. To me, the story that is arising from these considerations is what he loses by not finding it. That is much more interesting than if he finds it and gets it and lives happily ever after. That is where the story lives.
Step #4: Plot it Out.
You don’t have to know everything up front about your story. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. If you do, it will most likely take the joy of discovery out of the writing for you.
This gets into the “planner” versus “pantser” debate. Perhaps you like to know everything that’s going to happen before you write it (planner) or perhaps you like to know nothing and just see where the story takes you (pantser).
For now, let’s go with a happy medium.
E. L. Doctorow, in his famous quote, suggests that you must know a little bit about your story to get going, but you don’t have to know everything. Give your characters some room to breathe, to speak, to grow and change on their own times. Let them live in your story. This will keep you surprised and motivated to keep going, which in turn will happen to your reader too.
After discerning your character’s desires and the possible consequences for succeeding or failing to reach their goal, pick a path to begin writing towards. Consider how your character evolves over the course of the story – How did they get from here to there? – and use those answers to fill in the blanks from beginning to end. Consider how the external events force the character to confront internal conflicts. Pay attention to causality, and how an event must cause the character to react in a certain way.
NOW you can make a concrete plot-point list or map like you did for the master story in step #1. (I told you we'd get to it just a minute, now we're here – woohoo!) Do it for your own story so you know roughly where you're going.
Please remember though, this is supposed to be rough. This is supposed to be an outline. Don’t be afraid to stray from it if something else feels more organic. This is a starting point, your headlights per se. Let your character's desires be the driver.
The biggest thing that you want to retain when writing is your character's desires. You're throwing conflict in their way to prohibit them from reaching them, but their wants and needs are what's truly keeping the story going. Writer's Block happens because plot stops. And plot stops because desires stop. When faced with writer's block, go back to your character's desires.