How many times have you heard someone say any of the following? “Oh, I'm a plot writer.” “Yeah, my stories are all character-driven.” “My setting is my main character.” I understand the thinking behind these statements. I also disagree with the principle upon which they're based.
Let's start off with the larger premise. We all have strengths and weaknesses as writers. I, for example, struggle to visually imagine interior environments like castles, dungeons, and so on. The pictures don't form in my mind. That makes descriptions of these things tough to write. However, I've been told my dialogue and imagery is great. Feel free to disagree, my point is that we all excel and struggle with different aspects of our craft.
It's very easy to dig ourselves into this hole of “Ok, every story has three major components. I'm good at this one, fine at this one, and suck at this one.” It's like playing fuck/marry/kill with vital aspects of your story, which means part of your story dies with that mindset.
So, what's the solution?
I can't just say “well, if you struggle with writing interesting characters, just write characters who are more interesting.” That'll be the last visit you ever make to this blog.
Let's start with an analogy. Did anyone hate vegetables growing up? Only everyone reading this? Ok, great. Did anyone’s parents put cheese on their broccoli to help them stomach all that cruciferous nutrients?
Hang onto that thought. Let's say you struggle with characters. Your plot is fine, and you excel at worldbuilding and painting a rich setting.
The characters are your broccoli. The setting is your cheese.
By merging a shitty thing you dislike with a fun thing you're good at, you can gain insight into your weakness when viewing it through the lens of your strength.
What do I mean by that? My philosophy is three simple statements.
Characters are products of their environment.
Character decisions drive the plot.
The events of the plot shape the setting.
See, it's not so much like fuck/marry/kill as it is rock/paper/scissors. Now that we have our framework, let's get detailed.
Characters are Products of Their Environment
Back to the broccoli and cheese (using worldbuilding skills to understand your characters).
If you have a solid grasp on your world‘s geography, climate, and kingdoms, you'll probably also have an intimate understanding of the cultures in your book. Their views on family, marriage, their religious beliefs and customs, traditions, rituals, their government, justice system, economy, and social ladder, their attitudes towards other kingdoms and cultures, the professions and trades that are respected or looked down upon, the way they dress, the things they value, even the food they eat.
Your characters are part of these cultures, right? Understanding the environment your characters grew up in can help you understand the character. When you’re unsure of how your character should react to a certain situation or issue, take a step back and think about them as a product of their culture.
Some quick examples:
Someone raised in a puritan society would likely be sexually chaste.
Someone born in the antebellum south probably wouldn't share today's attitudes towards race.
Someone born in a land-locked country wouldn't share the same enthusiasm for sailing as someone raised in a seafaring environment.
People born today generally think 2-3 children is ideal, while parents in pre-industrialized societies had as many children as possible.
Someone raised in extreme wealth might have a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding of the problems facing the poor.
We are products of our time and society. Our characters are no different.
Once you understand how they were raised, you can filter everything through their personal experience. After all, societies are not entirely homogeneous.
I’m about to go into a detailed personal example, but if you get the idea, feel free to skip to the next section.
We in America tend to idolize celebrities. Athletes, actors, musicians, models, talk show hosts, reality TV stars, and so on. I hate it. At best, we vastly overpay genuine, talented, hard-working people, and at worst, we worship vapid, narcissistic imbeciles because it appeals to a selfish and childish part of our innate nature. I understand the psychology of our obsession with celebrities. That doesn't mean I agree with it.
Every time I hear about the Kardashians, I want to break something. I get a visceral, blood-boiling reaction any time I hear about the “Real Housewives of,” (insert whatever community is cursed with their self-absorbed shrieking.)
It doesn't matter that I was raised in a society that reveres these people. I will never be a part of that particular aspect of our culture. Still, it's had a profound effect on me: A deep-seated resentment for the society that allows them to thrive and flourish like designer-fashion-wearing cockroaches. That resentment affects my core value system, because I see what narcissism and entitlement do to people. It has made me determined to live my life with integrity, honesty, and hard fucking work.
And of course, the irony is not lost on me that I still watch movies, sports, and scripted TV. Without the astronomical importance American culture puts on entertainment, these things I love wouldn't exist. So I, too, participate in that culture to some extent, which only brings…
More resentment. I could write an entire essay on this instead of a moderately long digression (I apologize), but I think you get the idea. That resentment, and even the value system that stems from it, is a product of our society, filtered through the lens of my own beliefs and experiences.
This can form a complex network of attitudes, beliefs, and feelings, which you can then sort through to figure out what action that character will take.
Nobody is immune to the world around them. If your world is rich, immersive, and detailed, you can use that to bring your characters to life.
That's our cheese and broccoli example. Or the “rock and paper” of our rock/paper/scissors example.
Character Decisions Drive the Plot
In this section, we’ll discuss how to use good characters to improve your plot. This is the “paper and scissors.”
Who here writes plot first?
I do. I get struck with ideas about things happening before I imagine the people they happen to or the people that do those things.
This is dangerous territory. If you do this and let the plot run away unfettered, you run the risk of having work that looks like season eight of The Walking Dead. I love that show. It was my absolute favorite show for a little while. But season eight was so terrible, so laughably bad in every aspect of writing, that I nearly quit watching. I'm glad I didn't, because season nine is much better, and I'm optimistic about the show's future.
But season eight… what a Goddamn train wreck. And here's why: the writers basically decided that a bunch of “stuff” needed to happen, and then made their characters do said stuff with no regard to who the characters actually were. They had characters literally changing core ideologies (kill prisoners vs. spare them, etc.) in the span of a single episode.
And the dialogue… The dialogue was next-level bad. Aside from the lines themselves being terrible, it felt like the writers wrote the script with no speaker tags, just lines of vague, banal dialogue, and then assigned those lines to people at random. Seriously. If I couldn't hear the character’s voices and see them talking, I wouldn't have known who was speaking because the lines were all interchangeable.
Really, really bad.
That's what happens when you let the plot drive what the characters do. They become reactionary robots living in a world that moves without them, instead of breathing individuals that influence the world around them by taking action based off their core motivations.
So, knowing this, when I write plot first, I have to carefully consider what kinds of characters would react to these situations in a way that the plot demands. And because of that, nearly every character ends up different from how I initially imagined them.
About halfway through the book, I have a very firm grasp on who my characters are.
Then I go back and look at the plot and change anything that needs to be changed. Sometimes entire chapters hold up. Sometimes I have to chop or drastically alter them. I had to rewrite the entire ending to Sundering.
Because otherwise it wouldn't have made as much sense, and characters would have betrayed aspects of themselves that I had meticulously cultivated over the course of the story.
Once I've rewritten anything in the past that doesn't align with who the characters are, I look ahead to make sure future events play out the way they logically would, given the characters in the story.
It's a weird process, and it may even seem contradictory to my entire premise since I start with the plot, but the end result is this: the characters have the final say in what happens in the story. Everything that happens should happen because of a decision your characters make based on who they are and their current circumstances. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to follow a plot when it's a logical extension of the characters’ motivations.
Look at Breaking Bad. Despite being a fast-paced whirlwind of drug deals, power plays, and manipulation, at no point is the plot unclear or convoluted, because every character is so clearly defined that every action we see makes perfect sense. We grasp their decisions naturally, instinctively, because we understand their motivations.
Before I get lost in another tangent on the greatest TV show of all time, let me repeat my main point.
The characters have the final say.
Let's pause to get our bearings. Remember our three initial points?
Characters are products of their environment. (Rock and paper)
Character decisions drive the plot. (Paper and scissors)
The events of the plot shape the setting. (Scissors and rock)
The big takeaway from #1 is: If you struggle with character development, you can use your worldbuilding skills to foster it by understanding that your characters are products of their world.
The big takeaway from #2 is: If you struggle with plotting, you can use your understanding of your characters to improve the tightness and cohesiveness of your plot by relating every plot point to a character decision that aligns with their core motives.
So let's look at #3, now. Our “scissors and rock.”
The Events of the Plot Shape the Setting.
The big takeaway here will be: If you struggle with worldbuilding, you can use your plotting skills to determine the kind of world in which your plot would happen.
And this, by the way, is how I built the world of the Shattered Fate series. It was a struggle, but I looked back at my plot to determine the core elements of the setting, and used that as my base foundation for all the cool little details.
Write down your biggest plot elements.
An elected leader refuses to surrender power to a newly-elected leader in a medieval setting
This causes a big civil war and incites conflict with neighboring kingdoms
There's some telepathic magic and time travel
Those were the core elements of the story that relate to the world and the realm of Corbryn. There are other personal elements for the characters, of course, but those are my three broadest strokes.
So I created a governmental system that I'll call “representative feudalism,” where a chosen leader rules with near-absolute power for seven years. That leader is chosen by other nobles, who are “supposed” to vote in accordance with the wishes of the commoners they govern. If that sounds like a blend of our modern representative democracy and medieval monarchical feudalism, that's because it is.
I then wrote a history that led up to such a system, which included a pair of civil wars and a rebellion. Basically, a corrupt king was a real piece of shit for a while, and when he was overthrown, his successor put into practice the current government seen in the story.
I then fleshed out the inciting incidents of those wars, the aftermath, and the attitudes today about those wars and the reasons they were fought. This ended up providing me with good insight into the two factions of the current civil war the book features, as well as the neighboring kingdoms, one of which has a heavy stake in the conflict.
After that, I developed the magic system and gave it a brief origin that will be explored as magic is further discovered in the series. Then I wrote the history from when magic was first discovered to present day, how it affected the common people and the magic users, and the role of the magic users in present day. (They're telepathic with each other and can sense people's emotions. They can't read minds, but they're close. They serve as advisors to powerful rulers and as communications vessels in armies. They're highly respected by those in power, but still mistreated by the common people.)
Those were the things that HAD to be a certain way for the plot I wanted. From there, I just branched out with more and more details that were consistent with the big foundations I had laid down.
It took several weeks, but after enough digging, I had about sixty pages of detailed notes on Corbryn and the surrounding world. And it all started with the plot.
Here are some other brief examples, in case you're tired of reading about me.
A story where the main character becomes a vigilante and goes on a murderous spree would probably feature an ineffective or corrupt government with a lot of organized crime.
A story featuring an LGBT romance would probably happen in a fair-minded, tolerant society. Unless the story revolved around the external conflict of being in such a relationship, in which case, it would have to take place in a sexually conservative/intolerant/bigoted community, depending on the severity of the conflict.
A story with heavy magic use would have to have that magic woven into the fabric of everyday life. Harry Potter is a fantastic example of this- pots and pans scrub themselves, technology is far behind because there's no need for it, broken bones are no big deal, so extremely dangerous sports can be played by children, etc.
The events of the world dictate what the world becomes, right?
Your fictional world is no different.
We’ve now covered all three main principles and their applications. Here they are, one last time.
Characters are products of their environment. (Using setting to determine your characters.)
Character decisions drive the plot. (Using characters to determine the plot.)
The events of the plot shape the setting. (Using the plot to determine the setting.)
If you've been paying attention, you'll realize this is just a big circle. Setting determines character determines plot determines setting, and on and on it goes. Paper covers rock smashes scissors cuts paper. See, my analogies aren't entirely stupid.
Hopefully this gets the wheels turning, and you can use the aspects of storytelling you're good at to improve the aspects you struggle with. This philosophy is helpful in editing, too. After you have a full story in front of you, you can better understand what's necessary to truly make it shine, and again, use your strengths to hack your weaknesses.
After all, the writing industry is at an all-time competitive high, and we can no longer afford any missteps on any of those three crucial elements of storytelling. And even if you don't care about finding an agent or getting traditionally published, think about the reader. They deserve your absolute best effort.
So throw some cheese on that broccoli.