Friday, September 14, 2012

The Unity of Character and Plot, by Andrea J. Wenger

For my Friday craft posts, I've been talking about developing your novel. Let's explore building a strong middle in your novel by considering your characters. To start, I'm reposting this guest post by Andrea J. Wenger, who contributed an essay to my writing book, Advanced Plotting.

The Unity of Character and Plot

Several years ago, at the North Carolina Writers Network conference, I attended a session where the instructor claimed that character is plot. While I understand her point, I think she went too far. Many things happen in our lives that we can’t control. In fiction, the response to external events demonstrates character and propels plot. But generally, by the end of the story, the protagonist becomes proactive instead of responsive, and the protagonist’s positive action creates the climax.

Character and plot must work in harmony. For the story to be believable, the actions the character takes must be consistent with the character you’ve created. For instance, imagine if two of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, Hamlet and Othello, were the protagonist in each other’s stories. How would those plays go?

Act I, Scene 1: The ghost of the old king tells Othello to avenge the old king’s death by killing Claudius.

Act I, Scene 2: Othello kills Claudius.

The End

No story, right? And if Iago hinted to Hamlet that Desdemona were cheating on him, Hamlet would answer, “You cannot play upon me.”

For the two plays to work, Othello’s hero must be action-oriented, while Hamlet’s hero must be introspective.

Keep in mind, though, that when under extreme stress, people (and characters) behave in ways they never would otherwise. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises novelists to imagine something their character would never think, say, or do—then create a situation where the character thinks, says, or does exactly that. If it’s critical to your story that your character behave in uncharacteristic ways, put that character in an environment of increasing stress, until the point that the character’s “shadow” takes over.

Isabel Myers, co-author of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, defined the shadow function as the least developed part of our personality. Even in the best of times, we may have difficulty using this function in a rational and mature manner. When someone is under stress, and the shadow takes charge, the results can be disastrous.

In your own stories, do character and plot work in harmony? If a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way, be sure to show that the character is under enough stress to make the action believable.

Andrea J. Wenger is professional writer specializing in technical, freelance, and creative writing. Her short fiction has appeared in The Rambler. She is currently working on a women’s fiction novel. She blogs and speaks on the subject of writing and personality. She is a regular contributor to Carolina Communiqué, a publication of the Carolina Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication.

Get more essay like this one in Advanced Plotting, along with a detailed explanation of the Plot Outline Exercise, a powerful tool to identify and fix plot weaknesses in your manuscripts. Buy Advanced Plottingfor $9.99 in paperback or as a $4.99 e-book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in various e-book formats from Smashwords.


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