The longer I think about stories, both as a writer and as a teacher, the more convinced I become that it all hinges on character.
It wasn’t always the case. When I was first starting out, I tended to emphasise the outer journey – the series of tangible events that exist at the level of plot. Back then I focused on the originality of the idea, the high concept, the attempt to grab one’s attention through a new and unique premise.
Certainly, these are important tools for developing a story. The success of my first novel, Scarab, is proof of that.
But as I went along, my focus shifted to character. I began to conceive of a story from the inside out. I obsessed over the following questions. Does the character lack self-awareness at the beginning of the story? Moral and ethical values? What is her wound, couched in a secret? What must she learn/heal before she can accomplish her goal? Is there is tension between her want and her need? In short, how what is her character arc?
“Plot from character is an insurance policy against shallow and inauthentic character action.”
I began to see that the outer journey, the plot, needs, somehow, to be molded from the materials of the inner journey. And that the events occurring at the level of plot need to be synchronised to the flows that occur along the character arc.
I recognised that understanding the character arc, therefore, is the true precursor of the story. It is reason the hero reacts to events or initiates action in the way that she does.
This realisation has made it easier to write action and plot as manifestation of character. It’s an insurance policy against writing shallow, inauthentic characters.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I write about a man obsessed with fixing a dreadful mistake that resulted in the death of his wife many years previously. Every action, every thought he experiences stems from this obsession. Whatever else the story is about, it is also a tale about a driven man relentlessly attempting to do the impossible. A man who refuses to give up. In many respects his outer life is nothing more than a reflection of his inner life.
One of the greatest examples in literature of how character shapes the story is found in William Golding’s great novel, The Spire. The novel describes the Dean of the Cathedral’s, (Jocelin’s) determination to build a spire on top of a structure that may not support the additional weight. The effort to convince the master builder to built it is a study in the consequences of mistaking pride and stubbornness for faith and strength.
Plot from character is a methodology that many of the world‘s greatest writers have perfected.