The connection between plot and character

A common problem I often come across when editing fiction is a situation where characters are shoved around the story like chess pieces. Margie the protagonist winds up slapping her best friend not because Margie would ever slap her best friend but because the plot requires the best friend to be slapped.

Authors often commiserate with each that they are either good at characterization but terrible at plotting or good at plotting and terrible at characterization. That is because they are thinking of these as two separate things.

I get it; to talk about how to write means you have to treat various elements of storytelling as if they were separate from each other. If I’m pointing out an implausible plot event, I’m talking about something fundamentally different from an inconsistently portrayed character.

But let’s dig into that question of plot-event implausibility a little further. When I (or any reader) decide that I don’t believe in a particular plot event, I am not applying some kind of universal plausibility meter to reach this conclusion.

I am not saying “it is implausible for dragons to exist on earth” because while it is implausible for dragons to exist on earth, it is perfectly plausible for a dragon to exist in some made-up story world, even one that looks a lot like ours.

So what I am saying is that the plot event is implausible for the story world it has been inserted into.

There could be various reasons for that. It could be that it is implausible for the setting. It is implausible for a blizzard to blanket Los Angeles in June. I don’t believe it.

This type of issue can be addressed fairly easily: change the season, change the location, change the need for a blizzard in the first place. Maybe a wildfire will do instead.

Sometimes the implausibility is technical: for example, revolvers don’t have magazines, there is no gas station inside Joshua Tree National Park, the Mar Vista public library is closed on Sundays. So, a detective slapping another magazine onto their revolver is implausible, a fugitive finding gas in Joshua Tree isn’t going to happen, two friends can’t meet in the biography section of the library on Sunday afternoon.

Again, these fixes are fairly simple: give the detective a Glock, have the fugitive fill up in Yucca Valley, change the friends’ meeting time to Saturday.

But often, as in the case of friend-slapping Margie, the problem is that the plot event is implausible for this character at this point in the narrative.

If the hero of a romance proposes marriage on page one, it’s implausible (and also very unsatisfying). If the hero of a romance proposes marriage on the last page, the proposal is much more plausible.

But if the author has not shown the relationship developing between the two main characters of a romance, the proposal will be implausible wherever it happens in the story.

That means the plot event is implausible for the characters – not for the setting or some other technical reason. This is a harder problem to fix, and it’s why authors sometimes say they are good at characters but bad at plot.

Authors who think they are good at characters and bad at plot often don’t understand what to do with their characters once they’ve thought them up, and thus the characters (not to mention the author) wander around in search of a plot.

But characters can, and should, be driving the plot events. It’s perfectly fine for a plot event to happen to a character – that’s how many great stories start. The tornado touches down, the main character witnesses a murder, the door to Narnia opens.

What happens next should be driven by character, though. If I’ve witnessed a murder but I don’t trust the police, I’m not going to call 9-1-1. If I’ve witnessed a murder and I have criminal tendencies, I might blackmail the killer. If I’m a small child, I might tell but have no one believe me.

All of these are very different stories, right? So who the main character is makes a huge difference in how the plot can unfold.

What we can do as authors is to connect plot events more firmly to character by showing how character’s actions, reactions, and decisions affect the plot rather than having the plot shove the character around.

For example, we can give Margie a motivation for slapping her friend. Maybe Margie can be characterized as having a hot temper. Maybe what her friend did is so egregious we can understand the slap. Maybe the slap was meant to dislodge a mosquito, not hurt the friend. Connecting plot events to character always results in a more plausible plot.

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