When you think about planning a story or a novel, what comes to mind first? A lot of us instinctively want to say plot, right? After all, without a plot you have no story.
What if I told you that outlining your plot before building your characters was a recipe for disaster?
It sounds dramatic, I know. But think about it. Your life is not a predetermined track that you were just dropped onto, right? Your life is a collection of choices that you have made based on your personality, your dreams, your fears, your experiences. And then on top of that your story has been impacted by the choices others around you have made based on their own personality, dreams, fears, and experiences. Who we are and the experiences we’ve had have a huge impact on the plot of our life story. So why would your characters’ lives be any different?
We writers put a lot of work into carefully crafting our stories, but our readers should not be able to see behind the curtain into that process when they read our work. When they read our work, it should feel like a natural progression of events. But when you plot first and then assign your characters roles later, you end up with an unrealistic, forced story filled with two-dimensional, cliched, tropey characters. In order for your story to feel real instead of calculated, it has to emerge naturally from the choices, actions, and interactions of your characters.[Also Read: How to Overcome Self-Doubt: Writer’s Edition]
How do I write a character based plot?
Now you’re asking the right questions.
Step One: Build Your Characters
I’ll be going into this more in-depth in an upcoming post, because there is just too much, but for now just sit down and spend sometime getting to know your characters. Figure out their key personality traits and the backstories that turned them into the people your readers will be meeting. What are their talents, their virtues, and (most importantly) their flaws?
…think about what sort of choices (good and bad!) your character would make based on their personality and experiences, and how they would impact both their story and the characters around them.
Is your main character impulsive? Maybe your plot starts with them taking a risk without thinking about the consequences and everything goes terribly wrong. (Truthwitch by Susan Dennard is a FABULOUS example of this.)
Or are they overly naive and trusting? Maybe a manipulative antagonist betrays them in a big way, and now your main character feels responsible for the mess your antagonist made and is determined to fix things.
Think about the situations your characters could find themselves in throughout your story, and let them tell you how they will respond to them. Do this with all of your characters, not just your main character and antagonist. In order for your world to feel full and real, each character needs to be fleshed out and their actions need to reflect their personality. This collection of motivations, choices, and personalities should be what creates your plot and drives your story forward.
Before you go!
Many of writers don’t realize it, but using your characters to build your plot is a big part of showing your characters instead of just telling your readers about them. I know mastering “show don’t tell” is tricky, especially when you’re not 100% sure what showing even means. So I put together a totally free 8 page crash-course to help you out! I guarantee it will change the way you think about your characters and their worlds. Just click below to get access to the crash-course, and all of my future free exclusive resources!