Having trouble turning characters into plot

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Ensorcelled, Nov 25, 2012.

  1. Ensorcelled

    Ensorcelled Registered User

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    After having spent hundreds of hours attempting to plan out a workable secondary world story, I decided to put it all on the shelf and come back to this site for inspiration... and I found myself with some ideas I'm interested in.

    Currently I have six main characters: for now I'll call them Squire, Knight, Priest, Lord, Jester, and Craftsman. The Squire is the central protagonist; s/he must work with the Knight in the latter's endeavours. The Priest and the Lord are in conflict (due to a number of issues); the Craftsman and the Jester are marginally more sympathetic.

    I've managed to get quite a good sense of these six people; I find them fascinating & worthy of explanation; the chemistry between them is great...

    The trouble is, there are so many questions remaining unanswered I'm having trouble fitting my head around it all.

    I haven't determined the setting yet; I'd like it to factor into the plot if I can - partly because it prevents everything else being window-dressing & forces me to make creative decisions that are consistent with the world I'm making. (I prefer micro-to-macro as far as worldbuilding goes though, so it's not an immediate priority.) The same goes for my magic system: it's all loose ideas & nothing definite or inspirational, since i don't want to compromise a good story by trying to work with a hastily-assembled ''system'' of magic.​

    What's worrying me is that I can't seem to come up with anything much in the way of a plot. I'm throwing around words like ''betrayal'' and ''politics'' and ''espionage'' and ''economic difficulties'' and ''blackmail'' but it's not really helping.

    The most obvious course of action seems to me to be to start by working with the Knight's agenda, since the Squire is - to a certain degree - bound to him & will go where he goes. The trouble is, I'm stuck when it comes to what that agenda might be.

    Which in turn makes me say ''well surely that's dependent on the setting - what's his role in this society?'' and at that point it all becomes circular.

    If anyone can suggest any sources of inspiration, or alternative approaches, or really anything helpful at all, I'd love to hear it.
     
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2012
  2. Andrew Leon Hudson

    Andrew Leon Hudson sf-icionado / horror-ator

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    I am also working on a multi-header fantasy novel and at the moment I have pretty much finalised the overall story arc, with the specifics of the opening book set in stone (if not actually written for all the characters). This isn't what I started with though.

    When I pitched the original concept to members of my writers group, I had nothing more than that - simplified, it came to something like: "Harry Potter, but where there are immediate debilitating consequences of using magic, so the students are encouraged to find alternatives to the quick-fix-works-every-time solution of waving their wands around, like psychological manipulation, creative thinking, physical dexterity, etc." From that jumping-off point I did more or less as you have, coming up with a number of central characters; I sketched out some story-lines for how to bring them to the magic school ("Nothogwarts"... I jest) but I didn't have any strong idea of what the larger plot would be - in fact, my strategy was to write a bunch of short stories and re-label them as chapters in the hope of passing it off as a novel.

    I still am doing that, to a certain extent. However, even as I was coming up with these intros, my ideas began to evolve; after I had my characters and their initial stories I set to world building, and while fleshing out the world of the story lots of new things occurred; the detail of my initial pitch became just a part of something bigger. I'm sure every writer does things differently, but I wrote around 12000 words of notes on the history and geography of the world, the different nations and their cultural features; I drew maps of the continents and, because one of the character strands is ocean-based, described the trading routes and trade currents. In the process of all this the characters and their stories became a lot more interesting, and ultimately (gradually) the main plot came into being.

    Doing all that was a first time thing for me. I've completed about half of the first book, but the fine detail of where I want the story arc to lead has only crystallised quite recently; now those "finished" chapters need revision, not just to improve them but to bring them better into line with my overall objective. I don't mind; the result will be that what would originally have been a collection of separate adventures will now have connecting threads running through them all, setting up the main thrust of what is to come.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, you may already be on the right track. You have characters and a general idea of what you want them to do; maybe in the process of giving them a place to do those things, you'll find ideas for the larger plot will start to come to you. If so, be prepared to change your starting ideas if new ones become dominant or otherwise influence them for the better.
     
  3. Ensorcelled

    Ensorcelled Registered User

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    Huh.

    Well first of all, thanks for sharing! I'm now intrigued because that's sort of how I'd like to go (characters --> worldbuilding --> plot) but I hadn't considered sketching out short stories. I might well do that.

    I'm always prepared to change something in light of an emerging logic / inspiration - that's part of the reason behind my hefty database of unused ideas... but I'm attracted to your notion of worldbuilding as the step after character-building in part because it would let me juggle/play with said database.

    Okay, well thanks - I'm going to go and chew that over for a bit. :)
     
  4. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

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    A lot of the advice you get (on this board and elsewhere) is that the story is in the characters.

    And while that's true of the end product, I'm not convinced that character is where you start in SFF.

    SFF, whether first or secondary world, starts with a core conjecture or five -- the "what if" statements -- that are essential to all aspects of everything. As you said, if the worldbuilding elements are not ingrained into the characters, then they're window dressing. And it's not limited to character and setting -- the core conjecture(s) is embedded in everything, right down to turns of phrase your characters might use to the fashion or even to the plant life... but more importantly, to the sociological basis of the society.

    So, where you're giving us the almost Jungian archetype description of characters, your really giving us their social roles. Obviously you have a hierarchical structure, and if Lord is in conflict with Priest, then you likely have a division between matters of state and of religion of some level -- so we're not talking religious oligarchy, but something else. But this situation, the something else peculiar to your world, whatever it is, arises from the core conjecture.

    So... What If you've got magic that consumes the physical body of the caste. Your casters, while powerful in essence, are going to be physically weak. Already there are relationships that appear between your casters and their supporting organization of minions -- or their overlords. If the magic weakens the caster proportionately to the power of the spell, your powerful casters will weaken most quickly. They will likely want to collect weaker casters to perform the more menial of magical tasks. All in turn will require mundane caretakers while they are weak who are loyal. But how to make them loyal? Are they whipped or pampered into submission? Are these knights? And do they have squires? And are the squires divided in their loyalty to the knight versus the caster? And what if the knight was unhappy with his role and was trying to overpower the casters and make them subservient? And so a plot appears.

    All of which is to say... in SFF, character is just one part of worldbuilding, rather than a precedent to it. The core conjecture(s) of your world almost always leads to the core conflict in your novel, and therefore worldbuilding is also one part of plot, and vice versa.

    SFF, I think, needs the whole process to happen together. Character, plot, and world all have to harmonize. They all arise together from the core conjecture -- the "what if" statement.

    At least, that's how it has to go for me, or I get stuck at exactly the place you're describing.
     
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2012
  5. Andrew Leon Hudson

    Andrew Leon Hudson sf-icionado / horror-ator

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    Just to note - the compromising magic theme is from my project, not (I'm hoping...) Ensorcelled's.
     
  6. kmtolan

    kmtolan KMTolan

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    Not sure I've ever worked my way up doing characters first. More often than not, I do a story-based outline and, in parallel, start filling out my cast of characters as they come up. It is very organic, but the story outline comes first (though it is usually from the perspective of the main character so you get that parallel stuff).

    Kerry
     
  7. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

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    I was just riffing on the ideas presented. Sorry, didn't mean to conflate :)
     
  8. Andrew Leon Hudson

    Andrew Leon Hudson sf-icionado / horror-ator

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    No need to apologise. It was just in case you were meaning to offer Ens advice and had the wrong one of us.
     
  9. Ensorcelled

    Ensorcelled Registered User

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    Didn't expect a heavyweight like Fung Koo to show up here! :)

    I like the idea of physically debilitating magic - I didn't like any of the forms I'd come across, but the idea of using other people (not only as drudges and mules, but also perhaps, at the other end of the spectrum, training people to be super-strong in order to better resist / use the most powerful spells) is one that I really like. Are there any ethical issues if I run with that idea?

    Another note: although the titles of my characters suggest a high-mediaeval society structure, I won't necessarily be working with that sort of society; the 'Knight' might be an engineer, a wizard, a vigilante, a drug merchant, or a diplomatic messenger... it's more about the archetypal relationship of man with master - hierarchy, yes. (Pleased to see that Fung Koo picked that up in suggesting that perhaps 'knights' are involved in the magic 'industry'.)
     
  10. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    1) I would say don't worry about the magic parts yet or the fantasia just yet. Your right brain is working on it and then your left brain will refine it. It will come out of the characters but you haven't really figured out the characters yet. You're playing around with their voices and focusing on the dynamics of one to the other. Those dynamics may lead to a form of fantasia. Or various objects that come to your mind while you play with the characters, which will lead to bits of magic or fantasia and aspects of setting as well. Now is not the time to be pushing your right brain around. You may end up with a very gentle level of fantastic elements and the nitty gritty of that system may not be fully explained in the story. Or you may end up with a definite use of magic, a detailed system of magic with charts and entire clans and OWL exams. You may have magic users or you may not. You may have gods or you may not. You may have fantastical beasties, or you may not. Etc. You don't know yet because your brain hasn't decided what it wants yet. So leave it alone for now.

    2) Just got to see the movie Cabin in the Woods this holiday weekend and a central part of that was people being forced into archetypes they don't actually fit. Characters change. They have layers. So your Jester, for instance, might not stay a Jester. I don't mean that he'll be an engineer instead of a minstrel; I mean that he may not be a jester archetype at all. He may be the Knight. So it might be best to let the characters spin out a bit and see where they are going. You have one theme going -- hierarchy and how it effects and constrains. You could start with that -- how does each of these characters you've created view hierarchy. That may very well give you fantastic elements and plot as you go.

    3) What are the Priest and the Lord in conflict about? If there are issues, that's a part of plot that you've already invented. Characters having any sort of interaction is plot. Dialogue is action. Mood of narrative builds into plot. Basically everything builds into plot and plot builds into everything else. So you have a plot bubbling; it's just very raw still. Why are the Jester and the Craftsman more sympathetic than the others? What makes them that way? That's plot too.

    4) Characters have backgrounds (only little bits thought out for you right now,) and a world view. From that, they have motivations, they have reactions to what happens around them and those around them, and they analyze everything through the prism of their world view, motivations, reactions and known data, and they make decisions from that analysis. All of that leads to the characters' actions, including what they say and the expressions on their faces. And that action interacts with and becomes the plot, both effecting the other. Change one character's motivation, reaction or decision-making, and you change the action and the plot. So your plot is going to change a lot (since you are clearly not an outline-writing style of author,) and since you're fascinated with archetypes, the characters' motivations, etc. are definitely going to be your lead in on plot. So you might consider what sorts of emotional reactions you want these six characters to have in the world, and what decisions you want them to make in relation to each other. Do you want the Squire to grow tougher or no? Do you want the Squire to dedicate to hierarchial duty, duty that overrides the hierarchy, or against duty? Is the conflict between Lord and Priest over world views? How far is each willing to go on that conflict? What risk assessment do they make?

    If you keep writing these characters, they are going to do things to each other. That may involve a betrayal, or a romance, or a sacrifice. When they do something, the question then becomes, is that what you want them to do? If it isn't, is that because something new emerged from the character that you like, or does it feel off -- as if you are squeezing them into a role you're more familiar with but isn't really the action and direction you feel the character would head into? If it's the latter, change the character's reaction, motivation, or decision-making process and see what that does.

    5) Bear in mind that the story does not have to be in a secondary world unless you want it to be. Which you don't know yet.
     
  11. kongming

    kongming www.voxnewman.com

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    How about just writing a bunch of vignettes with various combinations of the characters and see what their psychologies shake loose. The obvious would be the power struggle between Lord and Priest and the conflict of loyalty the other characters face. This especially works for Knight, and Squire's naivete and inability to see the shades of grey the Knight must tightrope walk.
     
  12. kissmequick

    kissmequick bingley bingley beep

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    I always start with characters first

    Ask yourself a few questions about them - what do they want the most? Stop them getting it (bonus points if the other characters stop them getting it). What are they most afraid of? Make it happen. (Again bonus points if the others make it happen). Even if it's not any of the characters mentioned in your post making say the bad thing happen, someone should be (perhaps your Bad Guy - what does HE want? What is HE afraid of? You neeed to do this for all your characters who are active within the story. Or maybe your protag does it to himself...).

    Bingo! Plot.

    Characters and what they want/don't want - and what they are prepared to do about it - are the plot.
     
  13. R.J.

    R.J. Is Winter Coming?

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    The 'what if...?' suggestion is pretty sound.
     
  14. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    Every author deals with these issues at some time. You are not alone.

    Character and plot, actors and their actions, are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. It sounds as if you're still developing the characters. Until you do at a minimal level you'll not be able to develop a plot at a minimal level.

    Setting is the time and place upon which characters live and act. You're still developing that, too. Get to a minimal level with which you're satisfied. It does not have to be super-elaborate. It just has to have a few important details nailed down. Be satisfied with that and focus on the two-way interaction of actors and their actions.

    The basic questions you must decide before you can go into higher gear are these.

    • Who is your main character? (Not necessarily the POV character; the story might be told from the view of another character.) Or team of characters, who can be very varied, as long as they share one or a few primary motivations?
    • What does s/he or they want or need? Every story has this primal structure: SOMEONE STRIVES to get SOMETHING. The something might be positive or negative: something to go toward or away from. It might be vague, and sharpen as the story progresses. Or clear, but change as the story progresses.
    • What are (some of the) obstacles between the character(s) and what they want or need? A plot is the path someone navigates around or through those obstacles.
    You can obsess about details to your heart's content. That might be a necessary part of your individual process. But nailing down a few important details and beginning to write (for many) stimulates their creativity and sharpens their purpose. Start. You can always re-write, painful as it might be.
     
  15. carljroberts

    carljroberts Registered User

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    I wouldn't try turning characters into plot to begin with, but to each his own dish. Doing so makes simple, boring, predictable characters.

    If you are turning your characters into plot, I'd look to have the events in a story drive the characters action to begin with. A plot is simple (kidnapped princess, knight rescues her while fighting monsters, saves the day). The events can then be creative from there.

    Further along, the character has learned (if this isn't a comedy/tragedy) from the past events and applies that experience to their actions within those events. This is when your story should begin turning into a character-driven story.

    I wouldn't worry about all the unanswered questions. Not everything about a character or world needs to be explained. Most people go through life living in their own little world, blissfully ignorant of all the pain and pleasure of others. It's the interactions of those characters central to the story that matter. I know it sounds negative, but most people really aren't interested in those that don't matter to them.

    Your readers won't be interested in characters, and parts of their lives, that don't matter to the story. So focus on what matters most. Build on the characters biggest strengths and weaknesses.

    Keep the plot simple if you want a character-driven story. A complex plot calls for simple characters to just play their roles.

    I hope that helps clear some thinking for you. I've fretted over the enormity of building an entire world of characters, and decided it didn't matter for the story I wanted to tell.
     
  16. SilentDan

    SilentDan Registered User

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    What is each one after in this story? And what stands in the way?

    I'd highly recommend Cathy Yardley's Rock Your Plot. Short, only costs $3 (AU) for the ebook version, BEST $3 I've ever spent as far as plot stuff goes. It's a book dedicated to plot, but in saying that, it has a lot on character because the two, in the best fiction, affect one another. First and foremost, fiction is about people doing things, being active instead of passive (or passive until they can't be any more) and how events conspire against them, and how they overcome said events. It's Protagonist vs Antagonist. Plain and simple. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What's they fight about? Of course by antagonist, you could have a force of nature. There are a few Man Vs... battles: Man vs Man, Man vs Society/Law/Chaos, Man vs Inner Nature (Self), Man vs Mother Nature, Man vs God, Man vs Alien/Monster (although that's where all monster and alien attack movies come from, and they're rarely brilliant). And so on. I think I covered all of them. The key word there is VESUS, because without conflict, you don't have a story. You have a protagonist who gets everything they want and who isn't challenged by anything, and thus they don't grow or change.

    I hope that helps.
     
  17. Gumboot

    Gumboot lorcutus.tolere

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    I think it depends what kind of plot you're going for. If you want a really traditionally-structured tight plot, you need to start by addressing some specific key elements; your protagonist's character arc, their objective, and a central question. That will tell you about the subject/nature of your narrative. You've already established that the catalyst for the Squire's experiences is the knight trying to do something. Personally I wouldn't hinge the plot on something as wide-sweeping as politics, espionage, etc. Those elements will develop and emerge naturally within the world anyway; the Lord-Priest conflict in a medieval setting is just begging for all of that ugly mess.

    What if it's something really personal? What if the knight's parentage is brought into question, and he has to head on a "quest" to "prove" he's noble. That's your catalyst, but in the process the Squire is forced to question whether people should be valued more by their character or their birth? Suddenly the squire is the knight's superior, because the squire's parentage is without question (let's say that Lord who's fighting with the priest is the squire's father...)...

    Your story becomes an exploration of a pretty important social issue.

    Now, I obviously know very little about these characters, so I have no idea if this idea is even remotely compatible, but I've got the bare bones of a story there just from the scrap you gave me, and I'm confident I could come up with dozens more. It's a question of deciding what the point is. What are you trying to say? What themes do you want to explore? And above all, my advice is to make the plot personal and intimate. Leave the grandiose clash of power to the background; the world the characters move through. If you want your story to be powerful it needs to be deeply embedded in the intimate needs and wants of your characters.
     
  18. Ensorcelled

    Ensorcelled Registered User

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    Thanks to all of you for your thought-provoking contributions. KatG and Gumboot: your suggestions have been the most fruitful in terms of generating progress. Noumenon, Fung Koo, & al.: thanks for making me see that there are more efficient ways to write a decent plot.

    Thanks to KatG for encouraging me to not get hung up on specifics & try a more organic approach (one which resembles planting & tending a fruit tree: you give it some roots - characters in this case - & lots of depth for them to grow under the surface, in harmony with the pruning & training going on above, eventually resulting in exquisite blossoms which ripen... hey don't snigger, I like a metaphor/epic simile now and then).

    I'm a particular fan of keeping things human-sized (Gumboot). In fact, my feelings are so rampant on this that I'm going to start another thread...

    [Also a PSA: I recently became a little too busy to devote much attention to my project, but I'll probably return to it over Christmas.]