Have Plot, Need Characters

Anonymous asked: “Hi Lizard, I came across your Have Characters, Need Plot post and it was great! My problem is the opposite though, I have a story I have a plot, but I somehow don’t have the main character!”

So, this is actually something I’ve been struggling with a little myself lately. I showed someone a chapter of my novel and they said that while it wasn’t a bad start, the protagonist is boring, especially in relation to all of the other characters. 

I didn’t think I had a problem with character until that moment – trust me, for about 30 seconds I was in complete existential crisis – but after that passed I took a deep breath and said, “Well, I’ve got to get to work then.” Upon second glance, my main character is boring. I realized that she does literally nothing for so much of the book. Things are just happening to her right and left and she’s surrounded by fascinating people, but really she makes almost no decisions for herself. 

So I went back to the drawing board, looked at my original inspiration, and realized I was missing something. She could be so interesting. So I ran with that and am now writing in all these extra scenes that may or may not make it to the next draft but it changes how I look at her. It shows who she is as a person, the side of her that she doesn’t show to her friends, the creepy things she does when she’s alone, and even the weird personal opinions she has that make her feel like a real person. It’s changing the story a lot, but for the better. 

Now, back to your question. How do you come up with a main character who can hold together a whole novel? If you’ve got plot, you’ve got something to work with. One thing I heard was that the protagonist should come from a background or circumstance to really be at odds with the plot. 

Like for instance, a completely made-up example, a nobleman’s daughter is sent to a convent to escape a deadly plague that’s swept through the city and decimated the population. Just before she’s sent away, the girl discovers that she possesses are very unusual and dark gift, an old form of witchcraft called necromancy. She can raise the dead. Convenient, right? But then she arrives at the convent. The sisters there don’t look so favorably on witches. When the plague begins to hit the convent, she’s put in a tough spot. Save her new sisters, reveal her gift, and risk her life, or watch the plague take hold.

Okay. So, that’s a fun little plot. I might even want to use it myself one day. We know almost nothing about the girl, but already we can make some assumptions about who she is and her situation and because of her situation, the plot is exacerbated. By choosing her as the protagonist, not only are we choosing a necromancer, but a girl who is otherwise quite privileged. Her ability to raise the dead is also more relevant in part because there is so much more death surrounding her because of the plague element. The want for her to use this talent is huge. Then, the last element, the convent. Putting her there raises the stakes. She’s in a place where her talent is obviously witchcraft – the devil’s work – and puts her in danger. This is an instance where setting, character, and plot all kind of work together to add more conflict. If you have plot, then think, what kind of character would bring out more tension? 

I’m currently reading Final Girls by Riley Sager and it’s such a fun, thrilling read for this Halloween season, but his protagonist is a great example. Quincy is a “Final Girl” – she survived a massacre, watching all of her friends perish at the hand of a madman, and emerged as the last one standing. Years later, all memory of that horrifying night has been blacked out of her mind. She’s a baking blogger and prefers happy and sweet to dark and creepy. She’s not the only “Final Girl” out there – the media has named two others, Lisa who survived a sorority house stabber, and Samantha who escaped “The Sack Man.” Quincy makes an interesting protagonist. She is someone who wants to put the past behind her – hence the baking blog, but is perpetually haunted by what happened. Though she can’t remember it, when Final Girl Lisa commits suicide, Quincy finally meets the third girl Samantha, who is insists on remembering the past. 

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