How to build a complex plot based on a simple message (Part 4)

Part 4: Choose a character

Character and plot are two ends of a Chinese finger trap. You can’t write without either, and both of them refuse to let you go once they have you.

Character is important enough that you can actually plan a novel around a character instead of a message. Yes, you still need to have a message, but you don’t have to start with a message. You can start with a character. But since this series is about plotting a story based on message, this is the order we’re going in. (Please remember that this is how my brain works, and it probably breaks every rule in the book.)

So how do you come up with a character? Where do they come from?

Well, you can start with archetypes. Archetypes are fun (check out 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt) and a good baseline if you want to build characters. I also like to draw characters from real life.

However, what I like to do personally is to start with a VIRTUE that I need to best communicate my message and build a character around that quality.

What is our message? Stealing is wrong.

What is our direction? External.

What is our genre? Steampunk.

If our message is “stealing is wrong” and our direction is external, that means whatever character I’m going to have as my protagonist (my main dude or dudette) is going to start out one way and remain the same throughout the entire story (think Jack Sparrow or Indiana Jones).

But that still doesn’t limit the options. My character could be a thief. My character could be someone who never steals anything. My character could be a high-born, high-brow, racist, chauvinist. My character could be a low-class, uneducated mother of five who lives in a shanty on the riverbank. The choices are as vast and random as the world and history itself.

Okay. So I’m just going to make something up.

When you start planning at this point, remember that you need to avoid cliché as much as possible. If you start with a good foundation of original ideas, it will be easier to build on that foundation later.

Since I’ve already said I like scoundrels, I’m going to choose to create a character who is a rebel. Someone who lives on the outskirts of society, an outcast. And we’ll make this character a thief. And let’s choose—male. Guy characters are easier for me to understand. What is the stereotype for a thief? Poor, out of work, homeless types who steal to survive or to provide for their families. Right?

Okay, so how what would the opposite of that stereotypical thief be? How about a rich person? Let’s make him well off – with all the resources he could want but with no interest in them. And since he is a rebel, he doesn’t like the restrictions his well-to-do society puts on him. So why does he steal? Well, we’ve already determined that he can have anything he wants if he just asks for it; so there’s no thrill in obtaining his dreams and goals since he doesn’t have to work for it. So instead, he finds satisfaction in taking things from other people.

Okay. Stop right there.

Read over that bit again. Is it just me or does this sound like a villain? While villains are fun as villains, they aren’t always fun as protagonists. One of the biggest rules of character design for protagonists is that you have to create a character who is sympathetic. Your reader has to identify with your character, or they’ll stop reading. There has to be some redeemable quality in your protagonist or your readers will lose interest.

If you had created a thief character who steals to provide for his family, that is automatically a sympathetic character. Clichéd, yes. But sympathetic. And a spoiled rich kid who steals from the less-fortunate because he’s bored doesn’t sound like a character with any redeemable qualities.

So how do we give him redeemable qualities?

The best redeemable qualities are the virtues that are the opposites of our flaws. For those who have terrible tempers, compassion and mercy. For those who struggle with addictions, service to others. For those who have jealous hearts, generosity. It demonstrates that we all have a dark side and a light side to our personalities, and people can identify with that.

Okay. So what about a thief?

Well, let’s say that after he steals something and enjoys his thrill for a little while, he returns it. After all, he doesn’t need it. So why should he keep it? If he were a villain, he could keep it just for spite. But this isn’t a villain. This is our main character, and we want people to like him enough to keep reading about him. So – after he steals from the less fortunate to get his kicks, he silently, stealthily returns what he stole the next day. He doesn’t take credit for returning it. He doesn’t seek spotlight for “doing the right thing.” He just covers his tracks.

This goes deeper into character development. Because if you have a wealthy character who is stealing just for the thrill of it only to return the pilfered items without seeking spotlight, that means you have a real psychological puzzle on your hands. There are all sorts of directions you can go with a character like this. But the main point to focus on is that he’s a bored rich kid who doesn’t really mean any harm.

The next step of my process of character development is to determine what your character wants.

Let’s say our Rich-Boy Thief is the Governor’s son, and the one thing he has always wanted was to be normal. He doesn’t want to live in a mansion. He doesn’t want butlers and maids. He doesn’t want riches and wealth. He wants to be just like his friends, who are all poor.

Remember since we have decided to make this a Steampunk book, we can design the setting and the culture and the world however we want. So let’s say that theft is what identifies you as a common person. If you’re normal, you take things that don’t belong to you. That is what he grew up with, and that is his desire as he has become an adult. So now that he is free to do whatever he wants to do and his desire is still to be normal like everyone else, he leaves the house at night and goes out among all the common people and takes things that don’t belong to him. But because he knows deep inside that he doesn’t need them and that the people he steals from do, he takes them back a day later.

Names can come later. So for now, I’m going to call him Confused Robin Hood.

NOTE: You must know why your character is like this. You must develop a back story for all your characters. Back story may never ever appear in anything you actually write, but you need it so that you understand the motivation and intentions of your character. This would be history about your character, his parents, his family, his schooling, his hobbies. These are things that are essential to how he has grown up as a person but things that may not be 100% necessary to drive your story forward. We’ll focus on Back Story later in this series, but you need it to fully flesh out your character.

Okay. So where are we?

We have our message: Stealing is wrong
We have our direction: External
We have our genre: Steampunk
We have our basic character: Confused Robin Hood

What happens next?

That is the question. That is actually the question that drives everything. That is plot.

Story is conflict. Stories can’t happen while the status quo is still functioning as it always has. Stories happen when something goes wrong.

Part 5 will be about choosing your conflict.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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