Sitting on my bunk in the open bay barracks one Sunday afternoon, I entered a debate with the soldier in the bunk next to me. Her name was Culpepper and she was a skinny thing with cropped blonde hair and a thin face that made those awful military-assigned glasses look like goggles perched on her nose.
I can’t say much there, I had to wear those glasses too and any sense of vanity I had was forced to the side for those weeks in basic training.
We were both on the top bunks so much of what was happening in the barracks below couldn’t touch our debate, which was just as well because none of the other soldiers would have cared enough to join the conversation. You see, Culpepper and I loved to read.
This, sadly, set us apart from many others in our platoon. The difference between Culpepper and myself was that, at the time, I had already begun my writing career. Pieces of what would become the novel Sedition were written on 3×5 cards that I kept in my cargo pockets alongside a little pencil.
“Plot is more important than character,” Culpepper insisted and I, holding my latest letter home, shook my head.
“Nobody cares about plot, they care about who that plot happens to.”
“Yeah, but a character who doesn’t grow, who doesn’t go anywhere or do anything, is boring,” Culpepper said, which I had to acknowledge as true.
As the debate went on, we came to a consensus that there had to be an equal amount of plot and good characterization on the page to keep the novel going, but I’ve always remembered that conversation. Not only had I found a fellow reader, someone who I could relate to on an intellectual level in the middle of one of the more stressful moments of my young adult life, but she challenged me to remember that plot and character are inseparable.
Plot is born of character, and a character only grows through the plot.
For example, my current work in progress Song of Swans (title is still in the works) has a character named Cassy. I had originally planned for her to be a thief, someone whose circumstances had made her the lowliest of the low, forcing her into a life of crime.
This aided my PLOT quite well, as there’s a chapter in the outline where I have her executing those particular skills in order to survive.
However, when I went to write that first chapter I found that her character was flat. She had no life. There was nothing there that made me truly care about who she was or why she was a thief or … well, anything at all, really.
After several days of struggling, I came to the realization that I couldn’t have her be a thief.
#1) It felt too Dungeons & Dragons to me. (There’s nothing wrong with Dungeon’s and Dragons if you like to play, I just prefer not to have my fantasy novels be that on the nose.)
#2) There are many fantasy novels out there that have the main character as a thief, and I felt I should challenge myself to step out of the cliche.
#3) Cassy herself was telling me she wasn’t a thief, not really, and if I’d shut that plot up for a second she would be willing to tell me exactly who she was.
So I scrapped the thief bit and discovered that she was a laundress with one unique quality; she could read. Which led me to the obvious question of why she, a commoner in a very medieval-feeling setting, had an education and, more importantly, what she was doing with that education.
What was she doing with the fact that she can read? Well, she was teaching a fellow slave.
Suddenly I have a character driven plot. Cassy is more complicated and more relatable than the original pages, and while I am left wondering how in heavens a laundress is going to survive everything else that’s headed her way, I’m confident that she’ll show me.
Take a look at what some of my fellow authors have to say about building characters and character arcs in their stories …
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
A.J. Maguire https://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Dr. Bob Rich https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/rhobins-round-robin/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Marie Laval http://marielaval.blogspot.co.uk/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
17 thoughts on “All About Character – June Round Robin”
Loved your comment “Plot is born of character, and a character only grows through the plot.”
As for Cassy, she probably knows more than most about cleaning up messes while preserving the fabric no matter what comes her way.
Nice, I like that preserving the fabric comment. It’s been difficult putting myself into the mind of a laundress. I hate needles and sewing and anything of that nature, but I imagine she has to patch some things up from time to time too.
Your comment about plot being born of character seems to fit exactly how my plots end up getting created. I have an inciting incident and I know where I want to end up so I drop the characters into the action and let them tell me how they are going to fix everything to end up where they need to be, And isn’t it amazing how if you get something wrong in the character development and then suddenly see what and fix it how awesome everything else falls into place. It’s almost like your character is sticking out their tongue and saying “na na na na na na – told you so!”
lol, yeah. It’s amusing how much power a character truly has in a work of fiction. And it’s so comforting to know that other authors get that feeling too. I think if I shared with my mother she’d have me committed somewhere.
My characters do determine my plots. Even when I plot out how a story is going to progress, my characters frequently change it to fit their needs. It makes for an interesting story process. Now, I’m curious as to what happened to that laundress. Please let us know when Swan of Songs is released.
Sometimes I feel like an author is really just there to transcribe for the character, lol.
It’s to your credit that you listened to your character. Who are we authors to tell them what they are?
haha, yeah. It took me several years before I finally understood that my authorial power was crushing the character’s story. But at least I did learn in the end.
Must say, I agree with everyone else. Plot is born of character
Thanks for taking the time to read it!
Always reassuring to hear another writer say the character made you change the plot. I think laundresses were an important part of the medieval scene. anne
You know, I’ve found that they were. They at least had the job everyone hated. It makes me quite happy to have washing machines and dryers nowadays, lol
I also like your comment “Plot is born of character, and a character only grows through the plot.” You can’t have one without the other. And I’m glad you listen to your characters.
I really like the idea that your character is a laundress. Much more interesting; who says thieves should get all the spotlight?
Love the sound of your laundress! That she can read in an era when lower class persons largely couldn’t, has to be a game changer. I like to think that every era has it’s own extraordinary characters that rise above their surroundings and circumstances. Your laundress sounds as though she’s it.
Loved this post! You and Culpepper really got deep into what makes good fiction. How great to find a friend like that! Hope you kept in touch. Did that little notebook lead to a lot of stories? Do you still have it? Could be a story in itself.
It is interesting how our characters have ways to tell us about themselves and reveal themselves if we will just listen to them. One of the great mysteries of fiction!