Character, Situation, and Plot

Building a story is more than Character or Plot. At the heart of it is the Situation that the main character is in before a plot can unfold (or needs to be developed if an idea for a plot has already been thought of). I heard somewhere that Alice Walker spent a year with her characters of ‘The Color Purple’ before writing about them.

The Seed
In the seed of an idea for a novel, both a flash of character and a smidgen of plot will jump into your consciousness. You can already imagine bits of your character’s situation that will lead into the plot.

The Growth
In order for the idea to grow, you must spend time developing/thinking about your character and the idea. And to build a solid plot, you need to understand the current situation, where the character is at the moment and the start of the story. If you are a writer that hates the idea of plotting a novel then chances are you already think a lot about your character and their situation before you start writing. Or you start writing hoping that you will hear and find your character as you write, and also find out where the story will go. First drafts are good for that.

The Simple Formula for a novel

Character + Situation + Plot = Novel

So by developing your character and their current situation, their ordinary world (as named by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey’), you can build ideas for the plot, if you haven’t already done that, and in turn create your novel.

Of course, you could have a fantastic plot idea and use that to develop a character and their situation to make the novel idea work.

The Character
Spend time with them, talk to them, imagine you are sitting next to them, and write down what they say to you. Walk with them, wait for them to speak or not speak, sometimes a character doesn’t speak immediately to you. Listen to them and write down what they tell you. It may not make sense at first but it is the beginning of hearing your character’s voice. And their situation plays into how they talk to you e.g. a character fighting with inner demons may say very little but when they do speak it may flow out in a torrent of words.

The Situation
1. Their World. Imagine the world your character lives in. Its planet, country, town, village, countryside, home, work.
2. Character’s Background – defining moments in their life and the decisions they’ve made because of them.
3. Their People. The people they interact with and how they behave around these people. Family, friends, work colleagues, all the people in their world.

Every character will view their situation differently. One might see their town as a nightmare, another may view it as amazing. Your character’s voice will also play in how they speak, what they think, how they view the world around them and details that one character will notice, another may ignore e.g. crumbs on a kitchen table may be viewed as cosy and familiar while another may see it as a mess and disaster.

Plant the seed of your character and their possible situation into your mind and let it build there. Come back to it by spending time with your character and letting their thoughts and words come out onto the page. Brainstorm or add your plot and start your novel.

Meet my character Blog Tour

In the eternal battle of character versus plot, I reckon no one wins. Why? Both of them are vital to a novel, and have to be developed together, because without either of them a story falls, meanders without reason.

Plot or situation forms and shapes the character and, equally, a character, their personality and background, will interact and think from their point of view to and about the situation and actions happening around them.

Three examples from my own work:
My first novel ‘The 13th Vision’ I focussed on plot with some development of my characters and the novel’s downfall? A too complicated main plot and too many subplots. And two parallel plot lines, one of which was not as well developed as it could be. I like the initial premise though so I’m working on a re-write.

My second novel ‘The Alien Woman’ – two fully formed characters Eve and Ben came out of this one and the novel was written from two POV’s. The plot? As before I got carried away with complications but when I finalised the decisions of how many subplots to use, the novel came together.

My third novel is ‘Things To Fear’ – The situation was formed in my mind and I worked with a character journal for a few days to get to know my character and then got straight into writing a first draft. This character came easily and whenever I get stuck on a scene, it’s usually because I’m fighting against going with what the character would do.

A bit about my character ‘Eve’ from ‘The Alien Woman’.

Who ‘Eve’ is and where she comes from is central to the story of ‘The Alien Woman’. This novel is set in present day and in a fictional south-east of Ireland.
‘Run. Learn.’
With two commands pulsing though her head, a woman is on the run at night in a strange cold world. She enters an empty shelter.
When he gets home, Ben finds her and lets her stay the rest of the night. By morning, he’s surprised at how fast her injuries are healing and lets her to stay in the house when she prepares to run again.
‘Eve’, as he calls her, doesn’t know where she is or how she got to this world. All she has are the commands coming into her mind. She doesn’t mind Ben calling her ‘Eve’, the last time she heard her own name was by the ones she loved and has lost. A new name may help her forget her past.

‘The Alien Woman’ is going through the submission process at the moment.

A big thanks to Andrea of ‘Harvesting Hecate’ for writing about me in her post about the character in her novel ‘The skin of a selkie’. Her post was part of a series in a ‘Meet my character Blog Tour’.

Here is the first writer I’d love to tell you about, J.C. Conway.

J.C. Conway
J.C. writes science-fiction, romance and fantasy stories for adults, young adults and middle-grade readers. He says on his bio, ‘I’m a fan of great fiction that stretches the imagination, probes the depths of the human condition, or otherwise illuminates the unknown or the misunderstood’. He’s a prolific short story writer and his debut novel, ‘Hearts in Ruin’, a contemporary romance, was published in May 2014 by Liquid Silver Books. His blog posts delve into a variety of subjects; science in space and archaeology, information on science fiction awards and events, and information for romance writers, among some of them.

I’ll feature other authors over time but for today, I’m going to pass the baton forward and I hope you’ll go over and visit J.C.’s blog.

First drafts are liberating

First drafts are liberating. They allow you to switch off your inner critic and write, giving freedom to explore a novel idea and, most importantly, get the words onto the page.

A first draft gives you an opportunity to throw your characters into situations you may have envisioned for them. It’s a chance to watch them moving through settings, interacting with other characters, and by the end of this journey you start to know them intimately. For characters that seem one sided or caricatures, you can try different light and shades within their personality to develop them further.

The first draft also gives you an opportunity to introduce new characters or settings or plot ideas which can be cut in the second draft for being too far off on a tangent which you wouldn’t have known about without a trip there in the first place. Or perhaps that tangent could be the unique direction you needed to revive a flagging mid-section.

Do not be scared about cutting work later. I am guilty of this. It breaks my heart to know that I have to delete some beautifully written scenes but if they do not add to my novel, I cannot keep them. The most important thing to remember is that you can produce good writing and now you have the evidence in front of you but you wouldn’t have known it without the first draft.

So let the words flow, let your character take you wherever they want to go, push them into situations and see how they react, push them harder. Keep your end in sight and go to all the places you dreamed about when planning your novel.

Above all, keep going.