Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Using the Plot-Character Interaction

by
Nick Kiddle

2003, Nick Kiddle

he distinction between plot-driven and character-driven works is useful to academics who apply it to the finished product.  To writers, who are more interested in the process of writing, it's likely to cause confusion because plot and character are intertwined.  We can't concentrate entirely on one or the other, because they affect each other constantly.

Suppose you have a fuzzy idea that may grow into a novel.  Perhaps you see a single scene clearly: a young woman is chained to the altar and given a choice between betraying her lover and dying.  Before this can turn into a novel, you need to ask plot questions: how did she get herself into this mess?  What will she choose? 

But these are also character questions.  Her choice depends on her character; some people would say it defines her character.  And as you decide what came before, every decision you make on her behalf affects the picture you have of her character, which in turn affects the decisions she will make later.

Or to take an example from my unpublished novel, Servant of the Bryn, I needed my heroine to accept someone who had tried, in a fit of anger, to destroy the world.  I decided that she had come close to destroying herself, and could therefore understand him.

This led to a wealth of character development possibilities.  As I worked out why she had wanted to kill herself, I learned new things about her attitudes, her feelings and her expectations from life and relationships.  It also helped with the little things, the details that make a character real.  She has scars on her wrists, and when she's feeling nervous, she pulls her cuffs down to hide the scars.

And the character development led to plot development, so that her attempts to deal with her past grew into a sub-plot.  It, in turn, tied into the main plot and influenced the direction of the climax.

The same thing can happen all the way through your own first draft.  Every plot decision you make sparks a host of character decisions, and every character decision leads to a host of plot decisions.  Let this interweaving work its magic for you, and it will help you create more interesting plots and more believable characters.

Suppose your plot demands that a character has a certain skill.  A mercenary can repair a spacecraft.  How did he learn that?  He went to engineering school, but dropped out and became a mercenary instead.  And how does he feel about dropping out?  How does he feel about the engineers that made the grade?  Does he think he's a failure for dropping out, or does he see it as just a step on the way to his true vocation?  Find answers to these questions, and let him act accordingly, and you've given your character new depth.

Or suppose you've developed your character independently of the plot.  Your main character idealises her lawyer father.  Has she picked up any legal skills from him?  Then she'll know her rights when the police arrest her.  Does she idealise other lawyers too, or does she compare them to her father and find them wanting?  Use this reaction if she runs across any lawyers during the story.

Keep asking questions.  The answer to your plot question will pose character questions, which in turn will pose more plot questions.  That's good.  Enjoy it.  Dig deep, and then revel in the richness of story and characterisation that results.