The Engine That Drives Your Plot

engine and trainCharacters drive the plot of a novel, don’t they? Certainly it’s not the theme, unless you’re writing didactic fiction. Nor does the setting drive the plot, though we might say it serves the plot. So characters it is. But what drives characters?

From a Writer’s Digest article written by Steve Almond several years ago:

Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forcing him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Two key words: desire and feelings.

Characters fuel the plot, but what the character wants–his desire–fuels him.

Too often writers fail to identify a character’s central desire. Rather, he floats passively through a story, letting things happen to him, only reacting when pushed into a corner.

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

At the beginning of the story, our hero goes to work, but because of the bad economy, he gets laid off. He decides to go to the unemployment office. On the way, he gets into a fender bender. The other driver doesn’t have insurance, and his own coverage isn’t sufficient, so his car is totaled.

Now he’s without a job and without a car, so he sits down at a bus stop. Across the street in the window of a cafe is a “Help Wanted” sign. He decides to check it out. The owner is desperate for help and hires him on the spot, but at the end of the month, doesn’t have the money to pay him.

He tells his landlady that he can’t make the rent, so she starts eviction proceedings. Now he’s without a job, without a car, and without a place to live.

This “story”–which is actually a collection of episodic events happening one after the other to the same character–could go on indefinitely. There is no overarching goal the character is trying to reach. If there were, the reader would follow him through until he either successfully achieves what he set out to accomplish, or utterly fails. As it is, the story can stop at any point, with a further deterioration of events or a reversal. But the character isn’t driving this plot. The author is manipulating events to create the effect he wishes.

Equally problematic is a character who has a central desire and then faces one external problem after another while never once dealing with internal issues.

Plots, in reality, are nothing more than events that take a character from point A in his life to point B–not physically, but emotionally or psychologically or spiritually. In other words, the character experiences some sort of internal change which we term character development.

However, only so much character development can occur by his overcoming one physical obstacle after another. At some point, he must face and deal with his fears, hopes, disappointments, conflicting beliefs, insecurities, guilt, dread, conflicting loves, and so on.

These internal matters are, in fact, the engine that drives a character that drives the plot.

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Filed under Characters, Inner Conflict, Plot, Reactions

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