What Came First? Plot or Character
by Julie Kenner and Kathleen O’Reilly
Conflict is key to tying character and plot together. Ideally
the scenes in the plot should:
1. illustrate conflict
2. show character grow (character put in tough decision, must
move forward – turning point and change in plot direction)
3. drive the storyline
The Three Act Structure
All good stories can be broken down into 3 acts—a beginning,
a middle, and an end. The beginning is your set-up, where you introduce
your players and give us clues to their character. The inciting
incident (Luke leaving Tatooine) is informed by the player’s
character (Luke has wanderlust; he’s not a natural-born farmer).
In the second act, we explore the character more as the plot
develops as a result of choices made by the character. The
the more character is revealed. (See Cause/Effect, below).
When we get to that ultimate turning point, our hero/heroine
in the same place they started. They’ve learned and grown,
and when faced with that final challenge (in the Third Act), their
character drives their choices.
Choose wisely to illustrate hero and heroine and keep them larger
them life. Can be used to expose strengths or weaknesses. Can
be used a parallel to the main character (i.e. Indiana Jones
and the French archeologist, Bellach)
Secondary character can drive the conflict (i.e. secondary
character presents a situation that hero or heroine must
react to), but make
sure it’s the hero or the heroine who is driving the plot.
One way to create dimensions in your character. Multiple faces
for different relationships. A person doesn’t show the
same face of the character to their parent, their spouse, their
children, their boss, or their boss friend. By showing the
same character in different relationships, you give the character
Forward motion of a plot
Cause ---? Effect --? Character reacts in accordance with their “character” as
driven by the conflict created by the cause/effect. That reaction
serves as a new “cause” and the next link in
the plot necklace begins.
All of that leads up to a major turning point, where the
reaction takes us in a new direction and, ultimately, shows
his character growth in the choices he makes (Indie shutting
eyes when the Ark is opened.)
The importance of showing your character’s weakness – if
the character chooses unwisely (i.e. they haven’t fully grown),
then the author creates tension and suspense. Will our hero FINALLY
do the right thing? But for this to work, the hero has to have
done the wrong thing more than once.
Use the first impression of a character wisely. All other impressions
are built from the first one. Chance to make unsympathetic characters
sympathetic. Consider the flow of the story. What is the best
way to show off your character.
Use the familiar, the recognizable to bring the
reader into your story world. Different from a stereotype. Used
and recognition in the reader. Examples:
- Jingling change
- Tapping fingers on the steering wheel is my dad
- Swaying back and forth when they talk is a guy I worked with
and I heard that Bill Gates does this as well
- Pock mocks on floor (or wall) from where the chair is leaned
back on two legs
How to Make the Reader Like Your Characters
In order to make characters real, they can’t
be all black or all white. They have to have flaws. In this comes
bigger challenge, how to make a flawed character likable. Some
- Suffering, either physical or emotional -- don’t overuse,
and the most important aspect is the cause and effect of
the suffering, rather than the act itself. Also, stoicism works
well. The more
restrained the pain in the character, the greater the reader
- Sexual Tension
- Make them familiar, yet not boring. We need to be curious
- Courage and Fair Play
- Good Attitude
- Draftee or Volunteer
- Endearing Imperfections: The Lovable Rogue -- can’t
make your character too perfect. The most loved are those with
Give your characters, hungers, hopes, dreams, desires (see
Character and Goals). Let me be proactive about taking
charge of their life.
Give the reader a reason to root for them.
How to Add Dimensions to Your character
Ways to Improve Characters -- a little bit of
exaggeration makes them interesting
Don’t be afraid to go against type -- surprise
the reader, twist a character, twist a stereotype
you try to understand your character’s motivations,
before your character is well-formed, don’t take
the easy way out; chances are it’s a cliché.
Work to overcome clichés.
Use tags to distinguish
characters from each other.
- Ability (skills or talents)
- Physical Mannerism
- Habitual modes of response and patterns of behavior
- Use secondary characters to flesh our main characters
and display new facets of hero/heroine’s character
Kathleen O’Reilly is the critically acclaimed, award-winning
author of over 20 romance novels. She lives in New York with
her husband and two children who outwit her daily.
National bestselling author Julie Kenner has been praised by Publishers
Weekly as an author with a "flair for dialogue and eccentric
characterizations," Julie's books have hit lists as varied
as USA Today, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Locus Magazine.
Julie lives in Georgetown, Texas, with her husband, two daughters,
and several cats.
- Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card, Writer’s
- Story, Robert McKee, ReganBooks
- How to Tell A Story, by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, Writer’s
- Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight Swain,
- Stein on Writing, Sol Stein, St. Martin’s Press
- Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, Story Press
PLOT BOOK SOURCES:
- Story, Robert McKee, ReganBooks
- How to Make a Good Script Great
- Writing the Blockbuster Novel