Monday, September 12, 2016

Who Does This Guy Think He Is?

What comes first, the plot or the character? Or does it even matter -- one way or another, we've got to fit both to the story. And either way, whether the story is based on plot or person, we've got to get our story-people right.

Huck Finn would never have made it as a street urchin in Brooklyn. Gone with the Wind probably would have lacked certain elements if Scarlet had been a mousy seamstress. The plots of successful novels need to conform to its characters, and vice versa.

It doesn't matter whether you first have a plot in mind or its characters, you have to know your people to their core. And a character sketch is the most comprehensive way to get to know them. Besides, character sketches are such fun for those of us who love to create other humans, outside of actually giving birth to them. We writers have this god-complex going on. If we didn't, we'd all be shoe salesmen or accountants. (Seriously, I'm not denigrating either of these professions, I'm really not sure what size shoe I should wear, nor can I add two plus two without wondering why it always comes up four. For my own peace of mind, I need both of these people.)

Logically, your character sketch might begin with the physical attributes of your story-people. But, again, we're not accountants. Your character sketches could begin with background, parentage, favorite color, or any other defining characteristic. Somewhere along the way, if you suddenly realize he's only five feet four inches tall, and has a mole on his back, add it to the sketch, you can always put everything in order later. Even if you never use this mole in your physical description of your character, you know that he has one, and it helps make him real in your mind.

In addition to the physical description of your character, you might want to know what he eats for breakfast, who is his best friend, what kind of music he prefers, if he drinks cheap beer or expensive wine. Does he have distinctive mannerisms such as peering into every mirror he sees, a certain way of speaking, does he tell off-color jokes, is he always hitching up his pants? Does he sing in the shower even though he can't carry a tune?

Know every detail of all your characters' lives, no matter whether you use any of these things in your story. Open up their heads and walk in, learn what their inner-worlds are like. Even before you start your novel, listen to your characters talk. After you've decided what they look like, what their likes and dislikes are, actually give them words and listen to what they say, and how they say it. Is there anger in their words, sadness, love, hate? How do they feel about the setting you're putting them in? You might think you're putting words in your characters' mouths, but you also might find that they start talking on their own to explain who they are.

This might seem like excessive work to create a character sketch for every character in a full-length novel, but once you can see your people and they've told you all about themselves, you're ready to pour them into the plot cauldron and stir it up.

So, here's the scary part: One or more of your characters doesn't conform to the plot, or the plot itself just won't seem to wrap around these rogues. The solution is to either change the plot, or -- much easier -- to re-mold the character until he fits. There will be character traits and opinions that won't need to be changed, but there will be those that will. And so, here's the happy part: There's a delete key on your keyboard and an eraser on your pencil. Because you're a writer, and the people you create can also be un-created. You can change blond hair to black, or a love of Jack Daniels to a hatred of all things alcoholic. And if you just can't find a place for that particular person in your story, you can just set him aside for the next story.

You're a writer, after all, and there's always a next story, maybe even tomorrow.

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