The Art of Plotting, Part II – The Actors

So, where were we?

Ah yes, I was about to go pogo-sticking blindfolded, on the roof of the Empire State Building, while juggling a chainsaw, live hooker, and dead kangaroo

Wait … what?  Sorry, that goes on the other blog.  Back to the plotting.

In this installment, I want to talk about characters.  Not necessarily how to build convincing characters – there are a million opinions on that subject – but on how they players in your tawdry tale fit into the plot and help move it along.  The character gives the plot intimacy.  After all, without a shoulder to look over, the plot is just history.  A few points:

Characters have goals:  By and large, the story is driven by a character’s pursuit of their goals.  Pretty much, every step in the plot should be a result of the character’s actions.  Passive main characters, who are swept along by the plot, are kind of frowned on.  This isn’t to say a character can’t get herself into a situation in which she has no control, as long as she got there as a result of a previous decision.  Do the plot events support the character goals?  As you walk through the story, ask yourself these questions:  Is the character going over to Super Adventureville because it helps advance the character’s goals … or because there is something neat I want to show the reader there?  If it is the latter, maybe you need to take another look.

Character actions must make sense:  This is maybe one of the fastest ways for an author to derail a plot.  Things are moving along well, the hero and his plucky young sidekick are on their way to vanquish the evil overlord, and win the day.  Without warning, the hero’s ancient and wise adviser suddenly leaves, giving some vague reason about "not tempting the fates."  The real reason?  With the adviser’s help/power/guidance, the hero might have a ridiculously easy time winning the day – and where’s the fun in that?  I table numerous stories because I get to a point where I box the characters into a corner from which there is no logical escape without pulling some non-sensical trickery … and thus, I have to put it aside until I can think of a way to rewrite the events leading up to that point.  Note, this can be a swell twist if the character action that seemed to make little sense at the time is revisited later for effect … but I find it more difficult to pull off than one would think.  You can take into account that you have an unreliable narrator present but that adds a layer of complexity, in that the character actions don’t have to make sense directly, but they do in context to the story.  That’s a narrow edge to walk.

Please don’t dumb down your villains:  I’ve posted about this before.  Villains don’t need to be the mustache-twirling baddies of 1920s cinema.  As mentioned above, they have goals too – goals which don’t line up with those of the protagonist(s).  Call them antagonists if you think ‘villain’ is too simplistic, but there always has to be some opposition to the hero’s plans – otherwise, what’s the point?  Smart villains are a greater challenge for the writer, as they make it harder to avoid the situations I raised in the previous point.  If Dr. No has simply shot James Bond in the head in the first movie, there would have been no more adventures.  There was no plausible reason to keep Bond alive – a prime example of villain failure.  I think you need capable protagonists; they make the story much more interesting.  A smart antagonist helps drive the plot, as it forces the protagonist to be behave in a more consistent fashion.  As a starting point, the Evil Overlord List gives examples of things you should not do.  It’s tongue-in-cheek but the cliches are all too common.

Dialogue, ho!:  There is nothing like breaking open a book set in a medieval archetype world … only to have the main character spout of something more appropriate for Jersey Shore.  That has nothing to do with plot, but it is annoying.  How does dialogue affect the plot?  Well, I find dialogue to be the absolutely best way to throw out plot exposition.  Rather than blanket the reader with paragraph after paragraph of backstory, a few lines between characters can give the reader all they need to know.  And for God’s sake, make it organic.  I don’t write the best dialogue on the planet but I try not to make it stilted.  What works better:

Jimmy:  "So what’s the deal with that sword?"  Peter:  "Well, as you know, the Kings passed down the swords to their son with each passing generation, and based upon this mark on my hand, I am ready to take up the mantle of the King, blah blah blah blah bling bling blah….."

-or-

Jimmy:  "You still have that thing."  Peter gripped the hilt of the sword.  "It … means a lot to me.  It’s come a long way."

Okay, that completely sucked.  Got it.  But the point is, whenever the dialogue starts to read like a paragraph of exposition, then we did it wrong.  The dialogue should have a good flow and dribble the information out a bit at a time.  Better, you can usually just provide the most important details and let the reader’s mind fill in the rest from context.

Okay, I am about to fall asleep here – thus, the last part of this probably sounds like it was written by a slobbering lunatic.  Well, that’s not far off, really.

Anyway, until next time, stay outta trouble.  Or not.  <wink>

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