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.

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.