Article of the Month
CHARACTER <-> PLOT COHERENCE
Copyright 2001 by Alicia Rasley
The secret to character-plot coherence is to make sure the story can happen this
way only with this intersection of protagonist and event. The protagonist's actions and reactions are the driving force of the plot, and the events precipitated change him/her in some way.
This is not the only or the best way to write every story. Disaster movies, for
example, are built on the premise that human beings caught up in catastrophe have little effect; that's why they have big casts of helpless characters.
But protagonist-based stories, especially those in the popular fiction genres, can often benefit from the fitting of the events of the plot to the unique qualities of the main character(s). Indeed, that the main character should affect and be affected by the plot events is central to classical and Shakespearian drama. Try to imagine the play Hamlet with the ambitious ruthless Macbeth in the title role. It would turn out very differently, wouldn't it?
The key is identifying what is unique about this protagonist, both in relation to the
story (Hamlet is the son of the murdered king) and to the rest of the world (Hamlet alone is committed to discovering the truth), and using those qualities to direct the plot. At the same time, you must decide what consequences the resulting events will have on the protagonist-- not on you or the average person, but the person with these unique qualities.
These questions might prove helpful:
1. Why is this character in this story? Why this character? What about this character uniquely qualifies him/her to be the protagonist of this story?
For example, Mary is a daydreamer gazing out the classroom window and so is the only kid to see the aliens land on the playground.
Daniel, an accountant, is the father of the kidnapped child.
Charity is the most capable young lady in the parish, so naturally she's the one organizing the Midsummer festival.
Beware of the "Everyman" protagonist-- if anyone could star in this story, you're
going to have a hard time individualizing the protagonist, or showing changes in reaction to the experience.
2. How does the protagonist enter the story? Can you make it fit the "unique
qualification" you identified above? Does the plot choose the protagonist or vice versa?
Charity knows if the festival preparations are left to a lesser sort, it won't earn much
money for the Church Fund and her family will have to make up the difference. So she chooses to start the events that will make up the story.
But the plot chooses Daniel-- he certainly didn't choose to have his son kidnapped.
NOTE: Starting the story when the protagonist "meets" the plot can hook the reader right away.
3. What is the protagonist's goal during the book? What is s/he willing to do for it? What is s/he unwilling to do?
Often goals are obvious-- Charity wants a successful festival, Daniel wants his son back.
A prisoner wants to escape from prison.
A rebel wants to cause the overthrow of the government.
Sometimes the protagonist's goal is less tangible: A woman wants her father's approval.
What they're willing to do to achieve this goal can provide scenes of action (psychological and/or physical). What they're unwilling to do provides conflict. For example, the prisoner is willing to dig a tunnel with his dinner spoon, but unwilling to kill a guard. So what happens when the guard discovers his painstakingly dug tunnel?
Remember that the protagonist's goal is not necessarily the story's goal, and the
achievement or failure to achieve that goal doesn't mean the protagonist can't achieve
something else. The rebel might not accomplish her coup, but she might in the process of trying moderate the regime's worst abuses, or solve a murder, or fall in love. A particularly wrenching climax might require the protagonist to sacrifice her goal for a greater good.
Consider also that the protagonist might have a hidden agenda even s/he doesn't
Charity longs for excitement in a life full of routine if worthy tasks.
Daniel must reconcile with his wild wicked past.
Mary wants to be taken seriously.
This "internal motivation" can be accomplished with or without accomplishing the "external goal." In fact, the story goal might be the accomplishment of that internal goal.
Of course, you can make this internal motivation more intriguing if it has some other
link to the other story aspects. How does it fit in with the unique qualification? The
scorn Mary has garnered for her dreaminess has created her need to be taken seriously. What if the internal motivation is in conflict with the external goal? Charity wants excitement, but her whole job is geared toward avoiding mistakes and calamities and making her world as peaceful as possible.
4. What quality sets this protagonist apart from anyone else?
See if you can hook it to the "unique qualification" that makes this person the one to drive the plot.
Charity is a manager, who manages people as well as events.
Mary's the imaginative sort-- a daydreamer-- and so she is able to believe in aliens no matter how ludicrous it seems.
If your character has to be dragged into the plot, like Daniel, give him a quality that will make him less the victim and more the cause of events. Daniel, for example, has learned how to concentrate his anger-- he's chillingly efficient in his rage, the result of his youthful training as a member of a paramilitary motorcycle gang.
5. How can this same quality get the protagonist into trouble?
Aristotle said tragedies require tragic heroes to have a tragic flaw. (I'm oversimplifying madly here.) The most coherent kind of tragic flaw is the obverse of the heroic quality: That which makes the hero great also brings on the downfall.
So Daniel's quality-- that concentrated rage-- can be used to cause the "plot problem." Say that before the story opens, a crooked corporate president asked him to cook the books, thinking that Daniel's checkered past in the Heck's Angels meant he was a felon at heart. Furious at what he considered an assault on his professional honor, Daniel played along with the client, while coolly assembling a locktight case that the president was cheating the stockholders. The president gets revenge by kidnapping Daniel's child.
The flaw can help trip the protagonist up during the course of the story.
Charity's well-intended manipulation of her subordinates infuriates one, and leads him to plot against her.
6. What other effects might this quality have on the protagonist's life?
This is a good way to intersect with a subplot, especially those involving secondary characters.
Mary's imagination has gotten her in lots of trouble with her rational parents, who see her flights of fancy as signs of mental instability. Enlisting them as allies in her quest to find and rescue the aliens (they've been confiscated by the Air Force) helps resolve their troubled relationship.
Charity thinks only other people ask for help-- she doesn't need any. So when she
finds out her brother has been gambling on the Midsummer games, she decides to take care of it herself.
Daniel's cool intense approach to life has always put a barrier between him and his
son. Perhaps he stays remote because he fears someday he will turn that icy fury against the boy. Risking all to foil the kidnapping can convince them both that Daniel really loves his son.
7. What other talents, gifts, or qualities can help the protagonist overcome the
This is where the character's history comes in handy. Daniel's motorcycle gang past gives him access to a very ruthless bunch of buddies. And surely the story cries out for a wild motorcycle chase through the desert, with the kid clinging to Daniel for dear life.
Mary, a fourth-grader, can fit into places no adult can go, so she can circumvent
base security by squeezing through the ventilation tunnels. Her techno-nerd parents have always provided her with state-of-the-art computer equipment and training, so she can log onto the general's desktop system and find the aliens' file.
8. Keep in mind the special quality/tragic flaw you've identified. How can that be used in a climactic scene where the goal is achieved or sacrificed or abandoned?
It helps to build a deadline into the plot-- Daniel's son will be killed in 24 hours; Mary's
aliens will be disected unless she can free them; the Midsummer festival must happen
Friday no matter how messed up Charity's personal life has gotten in the meantime.
As the deadline approaches, see if the flaw can bring on a "dark moment," when
all seems lost and the cause hopeless. In a rage, Daniel kills a thug, only to realize that this man held the clue to the son's whereabouts. Charity's manipulated enemy exposes a secret of hers to the whole church, causing her removal as Midsummer organizer and the loss of the approval she has always needed.
After the dark moment, however, the protagonist can reach deep down inside and
come up with the resources needed to recover. Mary's imagination helps her speculate successfully where a terrified alien might hide. Daniel uses his accounting skills to track down the villain through credit-card records.
The act of achievement of the goal can become the climax of the plot. For
example, Daniel breaking into the villain's desert hideout and rescuing his son, then
escaping on the motorcycle, will be the culmination of all the tension-building events.
If the goal is sacrificed or lost, the moment of realization or decision can provide
the emotional climax of the book. Charity realizes that her disgrace is actually a
liberation from her chain of duties.
9. How are the events of the plot going to change the protagonist? What has s/he learned during the obstacle course? What was accomplished? How has life changed?
Some novels end right after the climax-- Daniel could escape with his son, and they ride off into the sunset. But the reader, after seeing the fictional world tossed topsy-turvy, likes to see it restored to some measure of equilibrium after all the excitement is over. The resolution ties up any remaining subplot strands, and shows how the protagonist and the world have changed.
Daniel, for example, still has to resolve the tension between him and his son, thus
showing that the events of the story have had real effect on him. Now he's able to trust himself and his emotions more, and his son knows that he is loved. No doubt they will still have problems, but the major issue between them-- Daniel's deliberate distancing-- has been settled.
Charity makes the decision to cut the chains of duty that bind her to the village,
allowing her to accept the love of a wandering man.
Mary returns to fourth grade, a heroine now to her fellow students and her parents because of her connection to aliens.
Thus the distinctive quality comes into play in the resolution too. The protagonist
must deal with it in a way consistent what has happened in the story: Daniel and Charity will restrict its use, while Mary will glory in it.
Writing guidelines, followed too faithfully, are always in danger of producing
mechanistic stories: "Choose one special quality, one goal, three obstacles, and one
decision, mix well, and bake at 350." But coherent plotting will work well only if your
protagonist has the potential to be a fully-formed human being, with qualities consistent and inconsistent with the special quality, a life beyond the events of the plot, and an openness to experience and change. That's a creation requiring a magic stronger than can be provided by any guidelines.
Alicia Rasley is a 14-year member of Romance Writers of America, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets and plot guidebook:
The Story Within Writing Series
The Story Within Guidebook
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Go to previous articles:
Romantic Turning Points
Quick Character Motivation Exercise
Dazzling Dialogue Tips
The Submission Journey
Suspense Is More Than Surprise
Scenes on Fire!
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes
On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening
Tightening the Sagging Middle
Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium
The Publishing Journey
Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers
Setting and Character Interactions
Developing the Dark Moment
The Promise of the Hot Premise
Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes
Subtle and Sensual
Plotting Without Fears
Structuring the Story
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