Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Double Helix of Plot and Character

For me, plot and character are interwoven like the DNA strands in a Double Helix. I map out character arcs and plot arcs, but end up looking at them together more than separately because the story has to work as a whole.

Here are a few things I do to develop character and plot throughout the writing process:

1. Sometimes I write my MC's life story up until the book starts. This helps me to develop his voice for the actual novel. Nothing beats voice when it comes to story-telling. Your character can be doing something as boring as changing a light-bulb if he’s got a great voice. Okay, he probably couldn't just change a light bulb for the whole story--unless he had a really cool side-kick.

2.  In the first draft I ask questions like this continually: What does my character want? What does my character need? What are his internal conflicts? The answers to these questions help shape the plot.

3.  And all throughout the revision process I keep asking myself: What is my character feeling right now? If I know his back story, I can usually get in touch with what he is going through. Often those feelings make it into the story as thoughts, actions or gestures. And these are the things that show who he is and what he is struggling with.

4. My final thought for today: Have your characters take risks. And to have them take risks, put them in risky situations.

Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I can't remember the exact quote, but I remember an interview with Richard Price, where he said something like: you can have a scene with two characters sitting on a bench, having a conversation, and it can go on as long as you want it to, as long as it's interesting.

    Making one of those characters a giraffe would probably help a lot.

  2. Those are all excellent tips, Paul. I particularly enjoyed the way you illustrated your points! :-)

  3. We talked revision last night during an SCBWI schmooze. Wants, needs, and motivation were all part of the conversation.

    Great post!

    I'm finding in my current manuscript I don't know my protagonist as well as I might. Time to re-examine things.

  4. I'm writing my first 1st person book right now and it's such a different feeling. Developing characters is my favorite part of writing and now, writing from the first person point of view, I genuinely feel like I'm writing about myself. It's kind of creepy, especially when I put this character in scary situations, which I think is a good thing. Put yourself (or myself in this case) out there! Excellent post, Paul! :)

  5. Uma Vekataramani3/14/12, 1:16 PM

    So much good stuff in this post! Thanks, Paul!

  6. This balance between characterization and plot is always tough for me. My books tend to be high concept and very plot-driven, so my characters sometimes get dwarfed by the concept and the plot. I revise with characterization in mind, so #3 is important for me. Thanks.

  7. All great questions to ask, Paul!

  8. It's good to remind ourselves about #3 above. Sometimes, it is too easy to assume the reader knows what the character is feeling. And I agree, plot and character have to be intertwined. Giraffes are good too.

  9. Struggling Writer Girl!3/15/12, 2:42 PM

    Wow, this is great advice! Love you guys!

  10. These are all great points, Paul, and I can totally see them keeping me on track as I write. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I love that image, Paul. I sometimes feel like my characters are there and I'm just writing down what they're doing. Sometimes it breaks my heart and I wish they wouldn't but they are going to do what they're going to do...if we are true to who they are.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!