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M Corbett

Dreamer
I’ve been finding that I get to a point in my novel (currently writing my first) where I know what plot I’m trying to set up but my character is not making it easy. It seems like they wouldn’t do the thing I imagined would set up the next plot point.

What have you done at these moments? Change the plot? Change the character? Burn it all and start again?
 
Hmmm...tough question.
I think it's ok to have a square peg in a round hole but if something feels off and getting another person's perspective is not possible then maybe some re-thinking is needed. Maybe the plot is solid but the character isn't. If so you may need to refine your character a bit and vice versa.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
That means your character has character. Consider it a sign you are doing something right. Your character is in a position to where he/she will not do something.

As to a solution - either set up an incentive/threat that forces the character to take those actions, or introduce an outside force, like another character that will do them (and aggravate your character in the process.)
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
If your character and your plot do not fit one another, then one of them has to change. A character needs a good reason to do the things you want them to do in the plot. If they don't want to do those things, then it probably means they don't have a good reason to, and/or you don't know your characters well enough to manipulate them into doing what you want. You have to understand what makes your characters tick. Knowing what they want is key to this.

Author: Hey Frank, I need you to go into the deep dark woods.

Frank: No, there's a killer witch in there. You go into the woods. I'm going to the tavern for an ale, a glutinous meal, and to ogle my dearest wife as she works the bar.

Author: Oh, did I mention that the witch's house is made of gingerbread and sweets, all you can eat?

Frank: And the witch is full of spells that'll send me to hell. Bugger off.

Author: Whoops, looks like the witch just kidnapped your wife.

Frank: You POS, #$#%[email protected]$%@!!! Grrrrrrr.... I'll get my sword. Which way to the bloody witch's house again?
 

pmmg

Vala
If this situation was mine, where the character was showing me they wanted something else other than my idea for plot, I would go with the character. Stories can be long and windy, and can come back to plot, but a good character is gold.
 
I think it's helpful to remember that a full story is ... full? It's not just a character, but also a world the character inhabits. I can't imagine trying to write a story in which the main pov character is never inspired to do something, or manipulated to do something, or otherwise motivated to do something by something else or someone else in the world the character inhabits.

If you need a character to do something to further the plot, make the character want to do it. Penpilot gave a great example.

This is easier said than done, and sometimes it's very hard to do. You might have to change the character, change the world, change elements in the plot, or all of these, heh. Maybe the change won't be so huge. Maybe it will require a lot of change.

For instance, given Penpilot's example...what if your character Frank doesn't have a wife? What if, indeed, there's no one quite that special to him, no wife, kids, friends, or other living relatives? What then?

Maybe then, the tavern owner confronts Frank about his tab. His huge unpaid tab. And maybe the tavern owner waves over a couple goons to help him make his point. And maybe the tavern owner says Frank can live if he steals a certain item from a certain witch who lives in the woods.

But see, that could turn into a mere contrivance, one of those annoying side quests an author sticks into a story to move the plot along but for no other reason.

So we might have to dig into what has already happened in the story, Frank's psyche or current motivations, the current flow and elements of the plot, and find a better way to get him to go to the woods. If there's something he's already attempting to do, you could make going into the woods a necessary step for him. This might require you to rethink what has already happened, add some element you haven't yet considered. Whatever it is, you need to deliver the stimulus to Frank. He needs to be presented with some information, or otherwise made aware of a necessity, for going into the wood.
 
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Mad Swede

Maester
I think I'd ask how well you have planned out your story and characterisation? In my experience the two go hand in hand, in the sense that the plot starts with something happening, something which is connected to both the character and the setting. By this I mean the the plot has to build on the setting (society, laws, behaviour etc) and the character (what are they like, what has happened to them and their nearest in the past). If this hangs together reasonably well then you shouldn't find yourself in a situation where you can't make your character go in the direction you want. That doesn't mean that your characters won't develop over the story (they should) nor does it mean that you won't find yourself writing some sub-plot or little vignette as part of the story. But the main plot points shouldn't change much if at all.
 

M Corbett

Dreamer
I would think it’s a not as extreme as that. Isn’t it good if it characters get developed enough to surprise you, even after careful plotting?
 

pmmg

Vala
I'm gonna go back to Bob Ross, who said, there are no mistakes, just happy accidents. If yourr character is not the type to take on the plot the way you imagined, it may still be worthwhile to let them direct and see where it goes. Its certainly possible to write a story with a character directing, and they kind of show you the conflict and what the plot should be.

We writer types come in all forms and some like to outline and some can freeform it. And some stories lend themselves more to plot than character, but if you try to force it, or shoe horn it in, it will probably show.

From my own experience, there have been many times my character did not make it easy for me to get them into the scenes they wanted to be in. In fact, in my last book, the vision was to have a political story with a character skilled in courtly stuff to go with the MC, and kind of handle it, but.... at the moment things got urgent, I could not figure out a story way they would actually go with the MC, and I could not figure why the MC would give up the urgency to come back and get them. They split, and that political part never actually happened. But something else did and it was still good--and the story was not derailed because of it. In fact, its still the same conflict and still on the same schedule.

Maybe that is not everyone else's experience, but it can work out.

And I agree with Fifth, for a story to be full, its all its parts have to work together. But there are many ways to accomplish the same goal. If it was a murder mystery, I might put plot first, but characters are such a strong factor, I would not cheat them.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
I would think it’s a not as extreme as that. Isn’t it good if it characters get developed enough to surprise you, even after careful plotting?

IMHO, yes and no. For me, it's about knowing when to just let the characters run free and knowing when to yank back on the reins. For example, my work in progress is supposed to be G-rated, fairy-tale-esq story. But, one day, I was writing out a scene and the characters just started swearing like sailors. It was funny and entertaining enough that I considered maybe going to a more PG-rated story with a lot more swearing. But, as I wrote more of the story and though about it more, I realized that wasn't what I wanted, and it didn't fit what the story was about.

Characters can surprise in a lot of different ways, but at the end of the day, it's not really the characters. The characters come from you, and if they veer off in an unexpected direction, that's just your brain reacting to some stimuli that influences the direction of the writing. That can come from a a lot of different sources like reading books, watching TV, or having spent so much time in a G-rated head space, your brain decided it'd had enough and needed drop some curses and F-bombs just to balance things out in your head. :p

At the end of the day, you, the author, are in control. You get to choose when to let your imagination run wild and when to kick it in the butt, point it a certain direction, and tell it to focus. Because your zookeeper character suddenly deciding to genetically engineer a species of six-legged elephants with missiles for tusks and saw blades for ears does not quite fit your 1960s period piece about two kids nursing an injured pigeon back to health over the course of a summer with the backdrop of the cold war and space race.
 

M Corbett

Dreamer
Update: for my latest instance of this challenge I have found a way for the character to do what they want, knowing it will backfire on them later and push them in the direction I want.
 

Aleshe

Troubadour
Update: for my latest instance of this challenge I have found a way for the character to do what they want, knowing it will backfire on them later and push them in the direction I want.

That's very devious and I have to admit I've done that. The poor guy didn't know what was going on until it was like, surprise! Now deal with it!
 

BearBear

Inkling
Tricking your own darling characters, for shame! I usually just make sure they have no other choice but to go the path I want them to go.

Their choices:

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If yourr character is not the type to take on the plot the way you imagined, it may still be worthwhile to let them direct and see where it goes. Its certainly possible to write a story with a character directing, and they kind of show you the conflict and what the plot should be.

I don't think of this as letting the character direct. This is usually a sign that either my initial conceptualization for the character was incomplete, or I never had an altogether clear picture of the plot or story to begin.

This is a frustrating, recurring situation for me, heh.

Usually this is because my natural approach when coming up with a story is to conceptualize the character and the plot/story separately. Yeah, that's as wacky as it sounds. I think of each individually:
  1. What kind of character do I want? What features, powers, life situation, personality do I want?
  2. What kind of story do I feel like writing? Mystery? (More often than not lately, yes.) Adventure? Coming of age? Dark fantasy? (Again, more often than not lately.)
I can vaguely picture the character of my choice involved in the story of my choice, broad scale, but the nitty gritty details of the plot dynamics and milieu dynamics require more than the broad strokes. (Incidentally there was a #3: What kind of milieu do I want?)

So my next stage is to find a way to put these two things together.

If at some point I realize my character won't go where I want the plot to go...well as Penpilot said, it depends.

Some of the particular steps of the plot can change or be removed if the overall plot and story aren't going to unravel. If my character isn't the sort to get into a bar brawl, and yet the brawl lands him in a jail cell where he meets someone who can give him a key piece of plot-relevant information, then I can devise a different way for these two to meet.

Perhaps my character instead gets robbed by that individual, and the individual lets slip the information during the process.

Do I need to be wedded to the idea that they meet in a jail cell? No, and that's where the stumbling block can lie sometimes if I've conceptualized a plot and story in isolation from the character I want to use. Plot elements, conceived in isolation, can become proverbial darlings that must be killed.

Then again, perhaps I can devise a way for my character to become involved in a bar brawl even if he's not the sort to become involved in bar brawls. I can even make this an important character arc moment. The character does something he wouldn't normally do, for reasons he doesn't clearly understand himself, and lands in jail. This is going to gnaw at him, probably with other events occurring throughout the story, until he grows in some way.

I can capitalize on this possibility, turning this bar brawl incident into an important stimulus in the character development arc—and something I hadn't considered when first conceptualizing the character and the story.

This could be good or bad. How will the overall story benefit or suffer if I add this element? Maybe it will suffer, so I should avoid the bar brawl altogether. Maybe it will add depth to the story without derailing it, so I can take the character arc route.

It's these conundrums stabbing me in the eye to wake me up to the fact that I've not been honest with myself. No, I wasn't clear about the character I initially conceived. No, I wasn't clear about the plot or even the type of story I was writing. Time to fix it.
 

M Corbett

Dreamer
Thanks FifthView, that is actually a really solid description of the kind of conundrums I’ve had, and it’s pleasing to read that I actually solved an eerily similar problem with the same approach.

I needed one of my MCs to meet a character so I thought “why not have them end up in adjacent hospital beds?”. The solution was to have my MC badly beaten by a disgraced colleague that he had nudged over the edge of sanity by being his own dickish self.

So I ended up with a more interesting arc for my side character and a growth moment for my MC. Not bad now that I reflect on it.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I don't see any sort of conflict between plot and character (or setting or theme). They all go together, tripping over each other, sometimes shaking a fist at each other, but eventually they develop from a herd of cats to a team of horses.

The process is iterative for me. I rely heavily on being vague. For example, I have a character who is the head of a troupe of performers (medieval setting). Does he have magical powers? Probably. Which? *shrug*. Let's try something connected with acrobatics. Maybe he can juggle with extraordinary skill. Let's put him in a scene and see how that feels. Oh, I could add that he can see each item move (like how Ted Williams claimed he could see the seams of the baseball on a pitch). Maybe he can change the colors of the pins in the air. Or change their shape.

Now, none of that is much for heroic action later in the story. But once I laid the groundwork for acrobatics, I can have him possess super Jackie Chan physical skills, useful in a fight, useful pursuit or flight. And so it goes with the other characters.

I develop character arc in much the same way. This guy wasn't always the boss. How did he come up in the profession? How about a mentor in another company? Maybe something bad happened back there.

And so on. As I write more, I find opportunities to sketch. Very much like in visual art (or music), I'll have multiple takes, overlaying or removing bits. The secret there is not to get too attached to anything. Keep what feels right, move the rest to the archive. Yeah it can get sloppy and during edit I have to keep a sharp eye on consistency, but it appears to be the only way I know how to tell a story. Plot and character in a friendly scrum.
 

M Corbett

Dreamer
I don't see any sort of conflict between plot and character (or setting or theme). They all go together, tripping over each other, sometimes shaking a fist at each other, but eventually they develop from a herd of cats to a team of horses.

The process is iterative for me. I rely heavily on being vague. For example, I have a character who is the head of a troupe of performers (medieval setting). Does he have magical powers? Probably. Which? *shrug*. Let's try something connected with acrobatics. Maybe he can juggle with extraordinary skill. Let's put him in a scene and see how that feels. Oh, I could add that he can see each item move (like how Ted Williams claimed he could see the seams of the baseball on a pitch). Maybe he can change the colors of the pins in the air. Or change their shape.

Now, none of that is much for heroic action later in the story. But once I laid the groundwork for acrobatics, I can have him possess super Jackie Chan physical skills, useful in a fight, useful pursuit or flight. And so it goes with the other characters.

I develop character arc in much the same way. This guy wasn't always the boss. How did he come up in the profession? How about a mentor in another company? Maybe something bad happened back there.

And so on. As I write more, I find opportunities to sketch. Very much like in visual art (or music), I'll have multiple takes, overlaying or removing bits. The secret there is not to get too attached to anything. Keep what feels right, move the rest to the archive. Yeah it can get sloppy and during edit I have to keep a sharp eye on consistency, but it appears to be the only way I know how to tell a story. Plot and character in a friendly scrum.
Would it be fair to say you’re more of a pantser?
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I'm a plotter who appears to be miserable at. <g>

I do plan, but it's not a separate task. It's iterative. I plan, I write, that changes plans, but "change" here doesn't often or even usually mean throwing things out. More often it means elaborating and extending the plan. Which in turn informs the writing.

So I sort of resist the dichotomy between planning and pantsing. I'm just trying to tell a story.

In practical terms, in Scrivener (my tool of choice), I have the following main sections:
Draft (the actual writing)
Plot (not just outlines but notes and small essays on how the story works)
Setting (not just milieu but details of rooms and other places where scenes happen)
Characters (pretty much everyone who has a name, ranging from that only to whole essays on major characters)
Theme (usually thin and tentative until late in the process; I tend to discover theme and make adjustments during edit)
Fragments (actual writing, but I don't have the right place for it yet in the Draft)

Given that I make contributions to each of those categories on any given day, you can see why dividing between pantser and plotter doesn't seem to help me much.
 
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