I’ve been reading a lot about plotting on blogs, and that always gets me thinking about characters with dimension. I’m not honestly sure if there is a distinction in this term from depth, but I feel like there is because what I’m talking about today has more to do with plots than traits.
One day I’ll walk you all through how I develop characters. I started one way, added a few things, twisted them around and landed at my process on character development. I might have even touched on it here and there already, but while I’d like to give you one place to go for my method of development, I want to focus on plotting.
So let’s start with how I learn everything, utter failure. I’ve said it a lot. Failure is great. It’s wonderful. Oh, it never FEELS very good, but it’s still important. I quite literally have scars on my body. Each one (I promise I’m not exaggerating) was preceded by me saying, “This is gonna be AWESOME!” and then I hurt myself.
The first completed manuscript I wrote was AWESOME! (and by that I mean awful, and has since left me emotionally scared). There are many reasons for this, but looking at this deep red line across the soul of my inner author, I think the biggest problem I had was that my characters each only had one plot, and those plots were all secondary to the overall plot. People just don’t work that way.
Think about your day? What do you do? Even if you break your day down into “Go to work,” “Come home,” and “Go to bed,” that wouldn’t come close to describing your day. As I write this, I’m on vacation with my family. One of my elder nieces, (she whom I call “The Junior,” who also happens to be an awful lot like her uncle) and I had the chance to sit down. I haven’t seen her in a year.
“So what’s been going on?”
“Not much,” she answered.
I went on to explain that I seriously doubt nothing much happened over the course of the year I’ve been unable to really sit down and talk. Oh, social media and cell phones allow for the highlights, but I wanted the directors cut edition of The Junior’s life.
That got me thinking about my editor’s comments regarding my Fourth Draft of Caught. We were discussing a lot of arcs and he told me “readers expect more in fiction.” You see, even now, Caught is very cinematic in structure and prose. I did that by choice, and I may pay the price when it comes to sales and reviews, but I desperately needed something faster after writing The Journals of Bob Drifter. That doesn’t mean I ignored my editor. In fact, I feel a lot more satisfaction with this Fifth Draft.
So how do I do it? In short, I remember people do more than one thing a day. Heck, sometimes people do more than one thing at a time (sort of, but don’t throw research disproving multitasking at me).
There are a lot of plots out there. Some also call them structures. Others call them arcs. Quintessential Editor did a few blogs about them recently.
I didn’t really do this with Journals or Caught. I’ve been doing it ever since. What I do now is plot each character before I combine all of those plots into one outline. I keep aware of what opportunities arise, and I’m not afraid to let them unfold. This is where those dimension comes into play. Let’s do an exercise:
Think of a character. Need help? Okay. I’m going to flip a coin. Heads for man.
*flips coin* (I do this whenever gender isn’t a large concern. I even did this with my main character in my seventh book).
TAILS…Woman it is.
How old is she? More importantly, what does she want? Well, since I’m here visiting The Junior, let’s start with what she wants. She wants to go to college and study theater. (See…I told you she was a lot like her uncle!) Sorry…I think VERY fast. What just happened is a lot like my process. I flipped a coin, determined a gender. The gender got me thinking about someone I love. I took that real struggle, multiplied it by the power of “Fantasy” and got this:
A Young Girl wishes to become a Mistress of Transformation. Why? To what end? When I talk about character development, I’ll go into more detail, but I like showing you HOW I think. Anyway. I have my first plot. Because I tend to subscribe to Sanderson’s online lectures, I call this particular plot a “travelogue.” Why? Because she wants to go to transformation school. Where Frodo had to get to Mount Doom, from a macro perspective you have a character who is in one place (high school) and wants to get to another (college).
This can even be what I call the “main plot.” However, on her way to becoming a college student, there’s more that happens. She has to earn money. She has to gain references. She has friends in high school that she may leave. She has to confront the Administer of Admissions. (I’m seriously developing a plot as I do this, I welcome you to do the same.)
Each of those other objectives are plots in and of themselves. They’re side stories occurred on the way to the main objective.
Now let’s take an easier, better-known case study. Wizard of Oz. Would we care NEARLY as much for Dorothy if she told Scarecrow, “Thanks for the directions,” and moved along on her way? She could have. The Tin Man is an even better example. Some subplots (at least for me) are discovered. (Oh crap, my character wouldn’t just leave some poor tin dude sitting there frozen…well…I guess this book’s going to get a little bigger while I work this out.) Others are plots you see coming. (Well, the Wizard isn’t just going to jump to help her.)
My point is, you want your character to have many plots and objectives. They may all arise as part of a single goal, but life isn’t that easy, so fiction shouldn’t be. What sort of plots are out there? Well, again, I put a LOT of stock in Sanderson’s online lectures, so I’ll just share that website with you here. Brilliant teacher though I think he is, I know there’s more info out there, so please share it in the comments below.
Here are a few case studies: (This is how I learn best, so I hope it helps you).
Wizard of Oz
I Am Not a Serial Killer
Most of those are best sellers or easily remembered, so forgive me if I don’t link to them. My point is, if you watch this, do so with a pen and pad. Write down the “events.” When I teach my students, I teach them to break their features down into what I call the “Guy Does” test. Break each event down into a subject-verb-object sentence.
Jawas Show Up
Uncle Buys Droids
Luke Sees Message
Droid Runs Away.
Keep going. When you do this, you see the progression of your story. You can reverse engineer each mini plot in what’s already been dissected to bits in terms of The Heroes’s Journey (the main plot of Star Wars).
If you dissect your character’s plot and only have one thing. It’s not going to feel real to your reader. Every character should be the main character in his or her own mind. Anime does this VERY well. Thinking about each goal and how the steps to achieve those goals will force new plots will help you create stories that have more dimension. More dimension (in my arrogant opinion) means a better story.
Thanks for reading,