Craft Tuesday: Character Driven Plotting

People always ask me, “Where do you find your ideas?’

After swallowing several snarky answers, I say, “They just come to me.”  Sorry if that sounds as if I’m still being snarky but it’s the truth.  And usually—nearly always—what comes to me is the character not the plot.  After the idea comes to me, often the beginning of the novel with the main characters fairly firmly created and in place, I build a plot for those characters to wander around in.

For me, this is the definition of character driven plotting.  It works best for me because I am able to wrap the plot around the character not forced to shove characters into the plot, often against their wills and come up with odd motivations and conflicts which don’t come from the characters but from the writer.

In my opinion, you can tell if the novel is plot driven or character driven if the heroine has to rationalize and explain why she’s doing what she’s doing—often over and over.  If her action comes from who she is as a character, we KNOW why she does this because the writer has introduced us to her and her traits.    If the action doesn’t fit this, if it is a twist on her character, a line or two will have us accept it.  If, however, the author has to have her act this way to promote the plot driven story, there will be several explanation and, to me, this interrupts the plot of the story.  On the other hand, if the characters drive the narrative, there may be some holes in the plot but–we believe–the characters are so charming the reader won’t care.  At least, that’s our excuse and our hope.

For example—and this is completely made up:

PLOT DRIVEN:   Mary is a grade school teacher who discovers a body on her front porch and decides to find the killer.  WHY?  I read this so often.  Most of us call the police and allow them to take over.   What motivates her?  Curiosity  and stupidity seem to be the answers but the author needs this to happen or she has no book.  The motivation really belongs to the writer and her dedication to the plot.  Over and over, friends tell her this is dangerous but Mary gives many reasons she give for doing this, none of which come from who she is but the plot.  Without her investigation, there is no story.

CHARACTER DRIVEN:  Mary is a grade school teacher who discovers the body of her best friend on her front porch and decides to look into this because the police have written this off as suicide.    She has no plan to find the killer but she knows her friend isn’t suicidal and wants to know what happened.   The investigation is more or less forced upon her.   What motivates her?  Love for her friend, the desire to know the truth, traits we already know because we’ve met Mary and observed her with her friend.  We know as a teacher, she’s not a daring type—I say this as a teacher—that she usually plays by the rules and respects authority so she must have a good reason to do this—not just take off on a lark.

What does the writer need to do if he/she wants to build a character drive plot? 

1)         Get to know the character and let her lead the way. 

2)         Introduce the character to the reader with some short scenes so the motivation makes sense.  

3)         Know the characters so deeply that they interact without the intervention or explanation of the writer.   This step came as a complete surprise to me in THE WEDDING PLANNERS OF BUTTERNUT CREEK, the third book in the Butternut Creek series–no cover available yet.  I introduce Janey Firestone in the first book,  THE WELCOME COMMITTEE OF BUTTERNUT CREEK  and Hannah Jordan in the third book.  Somehow, Janey becomes the catalyst for the changes that takes place in Hannah.  I hadn’t planned that.

If your characters don’t surprise you with their actions, then you haven’t written a character driven plot.  If your characters don’t take over the story and lead in another direction than you had chosen, you aren’t listening to them. 

In a character driven plotting, the characters really do take over.  Let them!