Plotting by Characters

Anonymous asked: “So when I come up with a story, I usually come up with the characters first and it’s really hard to plot with those characters in mind, because that’s usually the reverse of what people do. Do you have any tips?”

Yes. Two words of advice – maybe one will stick – 1. You have to let bad things happen to good people. 2. Remind yourself that you don’t know what these characters are capable of. 

So, when you come up with the characters first and don’t really know the story, often the thing that you’re not allowing yourself to do is think of what terrible conflict the plot is going to center on and how your characters in some way are going to dive into the thick of it. 

As a writer, while you’re writing your characters, except one thing: you don’t know these people as well as you think you do. And that’s not an excuse to keep planning. You need to know them on the page. Maybe this isn’t the case for everyone, but when I tell myself that, I’m able to write a lot more about them.

I know a little bit about the characters in my novel – the tip of the iceberg. I might know what they’d say or how they’d react, but even then, sometimes they’ll surprise me. You need to allow your characters to do something you wouldn’t expect sometimes. Allowing this in small degrees will launch your characters into the right kind of territory – both you and your eventual readers will know that you don’t know what this character is capable of. 

This makes plot just so much more interesting. Say, someone in town has been murdered and the main character’s mother while she does things like send a casserole to the family, she has also been doing other things, like saving the newspaper clippings on the murder and decided, seemingly out of the blue maybe the whole family should go on a three week vacation out of the country. This is an especially interesting thing if she’s not the kind of woman who drops everything to go on vacation. The sudden urge to get away might make someone wonder, “is she capable of murder? What other unexpected things has she been keeping from us?” 

If you’re someone who doesn’t like to plan ahead, you can do this without planning ahead. You just need to drop some heavy hints early on – conflict is looming. Someone has done something they shouldn’t have. 

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