Back when I was a writing.ie fledgling, I took a look at what’s involved in starting a novel – concept, structure etc, and with the recent launch of The National Emerging Writers Programme I figured this week I’d look in more detail at two of the most important elements of creating a story. Plot and character.
Depending on who we ask, we’ll be told that either plot or character is the most important element of a good story. But the fact is that any decent novel, film or play will be the perfect mix of both. Those of us who a live for a good thriller, romantic comedy, sci-fi (insert your genre here) will still lose interest pretty quickly if the characters we’re looking at are two-dimensional, if we don’t like them or at least relate to them. Likewise, we won’t sit through anything that tells us all about the people – their loves, hates, family background, favourite childhood toy – if nothing actually happens to them along the way.
So which to talk about first? Well, as important as our characters are, it’s the plot of our story that comes to us first, or the broad strokes of it at least. It’s the plot that compels us to delve into the story in the first place.
And whichever genre we’re writing, there are the same basic elements that need to be included in the plot. how-to-write-a-book-now.com talks about these elements and shows how using them will help us create the fully nuanced and textured plot. (These will work for writing films, plays and TV as well of course, not just books.)
We can also use the Question-And-Answer method of developing our plot. This is where we ask questions, starting with the basics and moving up to the more detailed, about our plot and come up with an answer for each that we’re happy with, whether it’s one line or half a page. Freelance writer Steve Thompson has compiled a list of these questions but we can always add our own questions or come up with completely original list to suit our story.
When we have our plot done, the broad strokes or in intricate detail, it’s time to look at the characters, the people.
Keep in mind that character development isn’t just for our reader, it’s also for us, the writer. It’ll help us get to know the people we’re writing about. We’re going to be delving, intruding even, into their lives over the next fifty or hundred or few hundred pages and we owe it to them to get to know them first.
It also means that, the better we know our characters, the better and more consistently we’ll write them. For example, we’ll be one-hundred-percent certain that our hero Mary would never go ice-skating because, when she was five, her brother fell into a frozen lake. (That one might be a bit simplistic but you get the idea.) We might never mention Mary’s brother in our actual story but that nuance of her character, of her personality, is there for us to explore.
Over at MenWithPens, where they believe that character is actually more important than plot, they also give us some great advice in developing the people who are going into our story.
One of the most straightforward ways to go about creating our characters is to fill out a questionnaire. This will include pretty much everything about each person, from their eye colour to the most traumatic that happened in their life. A lot of detail will go into this and it should be filled out for all our main characters – kind of daunting if you’re writing a TV drama with ten main characters – but will be worth it in the end, as it will make writing our story infinitely easier.
The good news is that we don’t have to design a questionnaire ourselves, there are plenty of them already out there to choose from. Rob D Young has laid out a comprehensive 50-question character questionnaire which will definitely help us to get to know our people.
I’ll be looking at some of the other elements, such as structure, pacing and ‘Creating-Your-World’ at a later date.
“Creating whole people means knowing where we come from, how we can make a mistake and how we overcome things to make ourselves stronger.” – Samuel L. Jackson
One step at a time.
How-to-write-a-book-now.com’s eight steps to writing a great plot outline.
“Starting with your story idea, you only need to make eight choices to ensure the plot of your future novel hangs together in a meaningful way.”
I’m sorry, what was the question?
Writer Steve Thompson’s Question-and-Answer approach to creating plot.
“Once you understand the formula, creating interesting and exciting plots for your stories will become second nature.”
He’s quite a character.
MenWithPens.com unique insight into creating compelling characters.
“Some of the best novels I’ve ever read are the ones where the characters become people that I fall in love with or hate with a passion.”
Our survey says…
Rob D. Young’s Fleshy Character Questionnaire.
“It’s not about having a “good” or “bad” character; rather, it’s a difference of dimensions.”