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How to create a character with little plot?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Seira, May 3, 2019.

  1. Seira

    Seira Minstrel

    So I've been really struggling with my story for a while as this is my first (YA Fantasy).

    I asked for some help and someone suggested I take a break (which I did) and another suggested I get to know my character more. I only have a very vague outline of my plot, nothing really concrete .

    So I've been working on my MC but it's hard to create a profile on her when I know very little of my plot. I've been working through creating a character on K.M. Weiland's articles. It's hard to give her a goal, motivation, conflict, flaws, personality when I don't know what she'll need to succeed in her mission. Like giving the character a past that's relevant, it's hard to do. So how do I “get to know her” when I know so little about the events of my novel. Does the protag need to suit the story? I don't know how to go about this. Anyone able to help me?
  2. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I don't think you need a plot to fully develop her. I like the idea of starting with a fully fleshed-out three-dimensional character. The events of the story will change her, but there's no reason she can't be fully formed from the start.

    When you think of things like goal, motivation, conflict, and flaws, think of them in broad, general terms. What makes this person get out of bed every morning? What does she want out of life? What parts of herself hold her back (internal conflict; flaws, etc.)? You can work all of that out, and THEN put her into the external conflict of the plot.
    Darkfantasy likes this.
  3. Nirak

    Nirak Minstrel

    While of course you want your character to be able to succeed, they shouldn't have traits and skills that are only suited for the plot. They should have a variety of interests and abilities, and it might be more interesting if the plot ISN'T geared towards their particular strength! So say your character is great at combat, it may be boring to just see her winning at combat for an entire novel, when the only question is what is the next big bad guy she'll fight. It's engaging to see characters adapt their strengths to different challenges, like solving puzzles, or being diplomatic, or to put them in situations where their flaws or fears are an obstacle (they didn't throw snake-fearing Indiana Jones in a snake pit randomly!). Then the reader is more uncertain if she'll be able to win, and that uncertainty will help keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Your character has room to fail (otherwise it could be a short book), and that means they have room to grow as well. Flawless characters can be pretty boring. Of course there's still certainly plenty of room for plots built around mastery of the character's main skill, but they should then be challenged in other ways that don't suit those skills. People love characters, and will follow a good character through almost any plot, because the character makes it interesting. Build a character you love, flaws and all, and the story may just come to you!
    Rkcapps and Darkfantasy like this.
  4. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I agree with Nirak (very GOOD advice). You can always go back and adapt the character if you need to. But I always build my character first. I just leave out things like plot related goal until I know my plot. But he/she can have goals, motivations and conflicts beyond the plot. In fact it's a good idea to give them a life beyond the plot, I learned this from reading non-fiction. I read a novel written by a holocaust survivor. She had a normal life with interests, friends, and a tough relationship with her father and elder sister. Her goal was to go to University I believe her motivation was to prove to her family she was smart. Then her Genocide started and all that went out the window. Her new goal became stay alive and keep her and her sister together.

    I think that's how a novel should start. So build your character and their life before anything plot related happens.
    Nirak likes this.
  5. Futhark

    Futhark Inkling

    This is all very good advice. I find it’s useful to develop the character using personality stereotypes, whether that’s zodiac signs (east and west), MBTI types, or whatever takes your fancy. But that’s just to create a baseline from which to develop an individual. The next step for me is to understand their ‘normal life’, which can be anything from baking cookies to patrolling the kingdom’s borders on dragon back (or both). Steerpike summed that part up very well, and Nirak and Darkfantasy have elaborated on that point.

    The final part of your post is interesting to me because I’ve just gone through the exact same headaches. Giving the protagonist a past that is relevant was impossible until I knew what he had to do, and why it was important. Now, I already knew that he suited the story because my initial idea was a plot/character combo, but I don't think that’s very important as some of the best stories have the most unlikely heroes.

    So, going to K. M. Weiland’s approach (I’m a fan, I used this too), I already knew the lie that he believed, because it’s part of his normal world. This means I know how he must change during the story, so even though I don’t have a solid plot yet, I know where certain ‘signposts’ are. But, I could never work out his ghost, until one day I realised what was important to him and who had been manipulating him from his past. Suddenly I had a backstory unfolding just like that.

    To sum up my humble advice: continue developing your character in her normal environment, with one eye on how you want her to be different at the end of the story. Don’t stress about the backstory too much, because when you realise what is important to her, what she is protecting and/or loves, things will start clicking into place. You can throw in a dark secret or two, something she is aware of and feels guilt or shame over; whether she is actually at fault or not. Think about who has used or manipulated her in the past and if that can be connected to your story.

    Sorry, my son interrupted me and my train of thought got derailed, so that’s it for now. Hope it helps.
    Nirak likes this.
  6. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    Take your character shopping. Write another tale, or part of one, where she hits the big city market. Does she get cat-calls from construction workers? An eye for fashion? Or is she thrifty? How does she interact with friends and others she meets? Answer those points and similar ones in the short and you'll know more about both character and world.
  7. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    I like to start with the day before events that lead to the adventure. I write out what each of the characters are doing the day before events in their life change. I may not use this in the story, but I want to know who the characters are on an everyday mentality. This gives me a reference point for how they will change throughout the story. Further back story can be added later in the story if needed to give the characters strengths or weaknesses to better enhance the story. It's okay not knowing everything about your characters early on. most people don't know what they're capable of until faced with a challenge.
  8. Seira

    Seira Minstrel

    Thanks everyone this was really helpful.
    I was going to ask if anyone knew any really good character profiles that go beyond the basics (appearance, personality, family, education). Ones that actually talk you through creating the character, but Futhark all ready mentioned one (K. M. Weiland). She shows you how to do a full character arc. So I'll work on that. Thanks guys. But if any one has any others that would be great!
    Futhark likes this.
  9. Seira

    Seira Minstrel

    Rather than ask yet another question, I thought I'd just ask it here. I'm having a little trouble understanding the "character lie" thing.
    Would a lie be something like:
    Character believes peace can only be found through war
    I was thinking that my character believes She can only achieve something through magic. Since gathering magic is part of my plot. She doesn't believe in her own abilities and has grown up in a society that are dependant on magic - she thinks it's the only way to solve problems and will so anything to protect it? Would that be a lie?
  10. Futhark

    Futhark Inkling

    Yes I think that’s how it works. My MC believes that honour is achieved from following tradition and fulfilling obligations (oaths), but this is making him unhappy. He learns that personal honour is more important to him, even though the decisions he makes results in him becoming an outlaw. It’s a personal Truth for your particular character, one that causes conflict and change; a subject or theme you can explore in the story.

    Your MC sounds like she believes that she can only solve problems with magic. Her personal Truth is that she can actually resolve the climactic conflict with other abilities; abilities that she has no confidence in yet, but must be developed throughout the story.

    There is an interesting character building tip I came across that I found useful. When selecting personality traits for your character, a strong, positive trait can also be a weakness. For example, someone who is very brave can also be reckless. My MC is very curious about everything, which usually serves him well, but causes conflict with those in positions of authority (since he tends to question their orders/motives etc).

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