How Characters (And Settings) Create Plot Problems

In English (as in many languages), there are eight parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections. All of these pieces come together to create sentences—and, ultimately, convey meaning to others. But what’s actually required to make a sentence a sentence? Toss some adjectives, nouns, and prepositions together and you might end up with some artsy poetry, but you won’t have a proper sentence. Interjections (like “yay!” or “oh!”) convey a lot in a few letters, but they aren’t sentences either. Verbs can evoke strong imagery in our minds but they aren’t enough on their own. Grammatically, the minimum requirement to make a sentence is one noun (or pronoun) and one verb—or, in other terms, a person/concept/idea and action/being. How you build upon those things or play with them opens up an array of sentence structures, but they all start at that same place.

What does this have to do with plotting a story? I’ve used a similar metaphor in the past (for instance, when discussing how character and plot are unfairly dichotomized), and I think it’s also helpful when considering why so many writers struggle with plotting, or end up writing themselves into dead ends, or end up with plot holes by the time they finish a story. I love plotting and I end up in those places, too, so it comes with the storytelling territory regardless of temperament.

Back to the grammar metaphor. If a story can be equated to a sentence, then the “noun” of the story has to be the characters (or, in abstract cases, the idea or concept, but for most stories it’ll be an actual character or cast of characters). The “verb” of the story is the plot: what the characters do or what is done to them. In that sense, any plot is just a sequence of “verbs” done by various “nouns.” Just like in sentences, the characters are the source of the action—but in order to have a proper sentence (story) both have to be joined together. They aren’t opposites of one another, but partners.

Again, you might be asking, what does this have to do with plotting a story—much less about fixing plotting problems? I would bet that at least 50% of the time (perhaps even 75% of the time), a problem with the plot is actually a problem with the character(s). The other 25-50%* of the time, it’s a problem with the setting. Nouns drive verbs. Characters drive plots. If the plot isn’t moving, or is constantly veering off, or keeps arriving at dead ends, then you have to question the person in control of the vehicle—either your characters or yourself (since authors are ultimately in control of what they write).

Anecdotally, the scenes/chapters I’ve struggled to write have been difficult because I didn’t have a strong grasp on what motivated my characters. If I don’t know what my characters want and what they’re willing and capable of doing to get it, then things as simple as moving from one location to another become tedious and confusing. If I don’t know what my characters believe and how those beliefs drive them, then their words during dialogue will seem “off” and messy, and conflict that creates important character change or revelations won’t happen. Motivation and beliefs do not have to be complex, but they do need to be strong. If you find yourself at a loss for what needs to happen next, back up one, two, even three scenes and evaluate if your characters are truly “in character.” Maybe even back up and look at the characters themselves, and ask if you know them well enough to convey them on the page. Also anecdotally, the easiest scenes and chapters for me to write have been when each character’s motivations and personality are clear to me. You can’t communicate what you don’t know.

What about plot issues that aren’t stemming from character issues? Take a look at the setting. The environment can have as much of an effect on characters and their choices as they can have on the environment. Consider setting problems like a misplaced adjective or adverb, or an incorrect preposition—it doesn’t destroy the core of the sentence, but it might bring confusion or shift the meaning to something we didn’t intend. There’s a difference between “He sat down beside the pirate” and “He sat down across from the pirate,” and not just directionally. Changing where your character sits might change the way the pirate reacts to him, give him the opportunity to observe part of the room where later action takes place, or place him in more vulnerable position for said later action. That one small shift might be enough to throw everything else off in the scene—or might be enough to open up new plot possibilities. So, just like with characters, back up one, two, even three scenes and evaluate if there’s a setting detail that’s causing problems for your plot. If that doesn’t work, take an even broader view to see if you’ve missed or forgotten an important worldbuilding detail. You might even have to change or develop some worldbuilding elements so your characters have the opportunities you want them to have (and, thus, do what you want them to do).

Will these two “fixes” fix every plot problem? I doubt it–there are always exceptions to writing advice. But in my experience, the majority of plot holes, vague descrptions, dialogue that just doesn’t work, and even writer’s block (not from external/personal factors) stem from an issue with characters and/or worldbuilding. Veering away from such strict grammar metaphors, plot is what happens when character and setting collide. It truly isn’t more complicated than that. And because people take action just by existing, there’s no such thing as having characters without a plot. They’re a packaged deal. What’s difficult is all of the smaller, subjective choices you have to make about those characters and what they do, then considering how those choices affect later choices, and then considering the subsequent fallout of not just one but several characters acting simultaneously. It’s no wonder that writers of all types struggle with plotting. But, if you spend the time understanding who your characters are, what they want, and where they are, the most difficult parts of plotting will already be underway.

2 thoughts on “How Characters (And Settings) Create Plot Problems

  1. So true. I must admit though, that I’m partial to plot-driven narratives. It’s just the way I see stories, lol. I wish I could create awesome characters and just have them be the star of the stories, regardless of setting.

    I love this post. It was super informative. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post, Stuart!

      I’m more of a plot-driven writer, too–but I think viewing stories as characters and plots working simultaneously can work both ways, not just for character-driven writers. It’s certainly helped me write more dynamic characters apart from simply hitting certain events for the story. And, regardless, there are always readers who enjoy more plot-heavy stories, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. 🙂

      Like

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