Let Your Characters Plot Their Own Course

Kelly Dyksterhouse

So how many times have we writers heard the question, “Is your work plot-driven or character-driven?” There’s clearly a preference for character-driven work out there; it has a repuatation for being a more intellectual, high-minded, literary kind of writing. Agents and editors alike post their desire to find “quality, character-driven writing.” And haven’t we all heard writers comment that they thought they knew what was going to happen in their book, but that their character surprised them and took them on an unplanned journey? I’ve had this happen occasionally, and it produces an amazing writers-high. It’s been my typical experience, though, that it’s MY fingers on the keys filling the blank page each day, with MY brain directing them. It’s not always a love-affair with words. More often than not, writing is hard work. Work that requires planning and thought.

When I sit down to write a book, I have in mind a character I want to write about. I have a pretty good sense of what I want to happen and how the book will end. My characters are usually pretty clear in my head. I’m a dutiful author. I do my leg-work. Despite the fact that I’m in love with the newness of the project and all I want to do is get typing, I make myself take the time to fill out character sketches. You know –  all that background material to help you get to know your character: her name, her family history, her wants, her fears, her likes and dislikes, talents, weaknesses, yada, yada, yada . . .

But no matter how well I know my character, no matter how confident I am in what’s going to happen to her throughout my book, there is always a lurking fear, a constantly nagging awareness of a deep-dark, black hole that can suck the life out of my precious book: the sagging middle.

And that’s it, folks. That’s what we all have to face on those days when Our Dear Protagonist refuses to whisper sweet words of inspiration onto the page before us and take on a life of her own. And that’s when we have to turn to plot.

Plot is not something that comes easily to me as a writer. I think this is primarily because I’m lazy. I also think it’s because I love my characters. And plot requires that I hurt them, make them look bad, bring out their faults to an excess. It’s hard enough to look honestly at the faults of real people I care about, much less the dear ones I’ve created. But it’s absolutely necessary if I want to ratchet up the tension, keep the pace moving, ensure that my reader is invested my book.

Well, then. How?

I’m not going to insult your intelligence. If you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably a writer, and I’m guessing you know enough to have heard the #1 rule of plotting: make your character suffer. Throw your character into the worse possible situations that he/she could endure. Then make it worse.

But there’s another rule, one that’s not discussed quite as often, but that is absolutely essential to moving a plot forward and upping that tension. You know that horrible situation your character has to face? Well, she has to create it herself. Her trouble needs to be a direct result of her own actions. Otherwise, the tension will fall flat and the reader just won’t care. Think about it. Go back through your favorite books. Examine the protagonist’s decisions and actions. Look at what’s at stake. Then look at your own work. Is your protagonist in a tight situation? How did he get there? Was it a direct result of something he did (or didn’t do)?

What I find interesting about this facet of plotting is that it requires the writer know their character deeply. I was caught in the mire of the sagging middle for a long time in my current WIP. I kept thinking of bad situations, things that she could do that would get her introuble, but they kept running into dead-ends. And then I had my my protagonist take a Myers-Briggs personality test. Not only was this incredibly fun, but I found out more about her than I ever knew before, and ways to to torture her were suddenly abundant. For instance, I found out she is an ISTJ (Introvert, Sensor, Thinker, Judger). As an ISTJ, honesty and loyalty are key to her moral compass. I knew that about her intrinsically, but hadn’t thought of it in those terms. How helpful this was as an instrument of torture! What happens if she is thrust into a situation where she alone can save her closest friend, but to do so requires that she lie? Well, she lies, of course. And that lie sets in motion both internal and external conflict that she has to deal with the entire book. Another thing: she’s a thinker, not a feeler. What happens if she starts to love? What if that love conflicts with the order of her rational world (because she’s a judger, not a perceiver)? What happens to her when there’s not a Rule to follow to tell her what is right and wrong? More internal conflict. Oh, the agony I can inflict! What was once so tedious is suddenly so much fun!

It just goes to show that in good writing, there isn’t such a dichotomy between plot- and character-driven work. Delve deep into your character, and plot options will abound. But make sure your charcters plot their own course through their actions and decisions – otherwise you may risk floundering in the sagging middle of your work.

(I found personality typing extremely enlightening and helpful when I struggled with my own sagging middle. If you think it could be helpful to you, one of the tests I took was on-line, and can be found here: http://keirsey.com.)


4 thoughts on “Let Your Characters Plot Their Own Course

    • Okay, Kelly; how, exactly, did you manage to do the Myers-Briggs?? Don’t you have to pay someone to administer those things? It’s been YEARS since I did one. I’m wondering how I’d do now. I did go to the site you mentioned. Interesting. Great idea about the character, though.

  1. “More often than not, writing is hard work. Work that requires planning and thought.”

    That’s a great quote. I am terrible about planning. I tend to just sit and start writing. I have a general idea of the pbs and short stories, but I think doing an indepth study of the characters before I write about them would be a great way for me to dig deeper!

    Good post!


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