Plot through character—how to write it

The Spire-plot through character
The Spire projects plot through character.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt over the years is that successful stories are written from the inside out – plot through character. That is to say that action and plot are projected from the emotional, physical, moral, and spiritual perspective of the protagonist.

The external events of a story are, of course, of great importance—they are what draw readers and audiences into the story in the first place—but without a deep involvement with the protagonist’s obsessive desires, fears, foibles, successes and failures, the story falls flat.

If we don’t care about the characters’ hopes and fears, if we won’t share in his pleasure and pain, we won’t care about his involvement in the plot.

Characters respond to life-threatening challenges in unique ways because they have a sense of ‘felt life’—they have a backstory, a personality, a set of hopes, fears and obsessions. It is these treasures that make a story compelling.

“Plot through character refers to a technique whereby the writer filters the protagonist’s action through her inner life—her hopes, fears, flaws and obsessions.”

In William Golding’s outstanding novel, The Spire, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, is a man consumed by the desire to extend the cathedral’s magnificence by building a spire at the top of the existing structure. He ignores the advice of his master builder that the cathedral’s foundation won’t support the extension. He brushes aside all objections, puts up with the inconvenience to the congregation of turning a place of worship into a building site, with catastrophic consequences. Events are related through Jocelin’s emotional and psychological sensibility, making his experience our experience, while simultaneously showcasing his folly.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is a theoretical physicist obsessed with solving an intractable mathematical problem that could allow for time travel into the past in order to undo an event that cost his wife her life. This obsession prevents him from living the meaningful life his wife would have wished for him. It takes a cataclysmic cyclone to force him to recognise the deeply buried truth about his past—a truth that has the potential to set him free. Or kill him. This climactic event can’t be dealt with externally, at least not initially. It has to be dealt with from within. The process of laying Benjamin’s inner conflict bare, written in the first person present tense, draws us into his world and keeps us immersed in his story.

Summary

Filter your plot through your protagonist’s inner life. It will make your story more believable and engaging.

1 thought on “Plot through character—how to write it

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    This is a great article . The most compelling in a long time. Building a story from the inside out. That’s what makes Walter White / William Wallace compelling characters.

    We care about Walter White because of his desperate situation – A under appreciated high school teacher who must work a second job ( where he washes the cars of his ignorant students) who is on the verge of losing his house not to mention the fact that he is dying from cancer and leaving behind his wife with two children ( one who has special needs)

    We share in his pleasure when he is able to buy his son the car of his dreams or how he is able to buy the car wash of his former employer as much as we share the pain and anger he feels when a group of boys makes fun of his special needs son in a store.

    The backstory of Walter White – the story of the compassionate timid chemistry genius who did not recognize his own talents is the polar opposite twin of Heisenberg who knows that the high demand for is product is no accident : “Do you want to live in a world without Coke a cola” Is what makes the story compelling.

    William Wallace is equally compelling . What he lacks in character growth he makes up with determination to for fill his quest for revenge and freedom. As with Walter White it is a case of doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. William Wallace the farmer with a wife and children is the polar opposite twin of William Wallace the hero of Scotland and symbol of rebellion.

    In short : By the end of your story the character must be close to unrecognizable as appose to the character we met in the beginning.

    Reply

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