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Weekend Writing Inspiration: 5 Steps to Take When Your Plot Rocks But Your Characters Fall Flat

April 17, 2020
5 min read time

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what to do when your writing strengths lie with character, but your plot and structure skills aren’t as strong. Today, we’re tackling what to do when your plot and structure skills are strong, but you struggle with making your characters come alive.

When working with plot-focused writers, my strategy is to help them understand their characters on a deeper level for a more authentic and believable feel. The typical “character profile” method doesn’t necessarily do the trick for these writers, primarily because it keeps them working on an intellectual level, rather than an intuitive one. And understanding character is all about intuition, empathy and connection.

If your plot rocks, but you recognize one of these “symptoms”, your characters might be falling flat:

  • Readers say your characters come across as one-dimensional, wooden, arch or unlikable.
  • You don’t feel a sense of clarity about or connection to your characters, and they feel more like contrivances or puppets designed to move the story forward.
  • Your characters lack internal motivation and personality.
  • When you attempt to create character profiles, they feel like meaningless lists of words that don’t help you write.
  • Your dialogue is indistinguishable between characters, as well as your own voice.
  • Your characters are driven by the story and have little agency themselves.
  • Your story reads like a series of action-packed moments, situations, and/or set pieces, but lacks depth or meaning.
  • Your characters don’t change over the course of the story.

Here are five steps to help strengthen your character work:

  1. Get in touch with your characters on a personal level.
    When writers feel disconnected from their characters, it’s often because they don’t know them on an intimate level. Make it your goal to know your primary characters, at least as well as you know your best friends or close family members, and your secondary characters at least as well as people you interact with regularly and have some idea of what makes them tick.

    To get to know them, dialogue or interact with your characters separately from what happens in your story.

    Ask your characters questions about their lives: What matters to them? What scares them? What do they want most and what’s happened to them that makes them act the way they do? You can do this by sitting across from an empty chair and asking questions, then switching seats to hear the answers. Or, you can use what screenwriting instructor Corey Mandell calls “intuitive writing,” also known as “automatic writing,” which is a longhand exercise of writing out questions and then responding in a character’s voice (hint: this also helps hone your dialogue skills).

  2. Understand specific character backstory — deeply.
    “Backstory” is often a source of cumbersome exposition that weighs down a story and has acquired a bad rap as a result. It can also become a trap that keeps writers mired in an endless quest to write out extensive backstories for each and every character before they begin writing.

    Backstory, however, is where a story has its roots. Your characters’ backstories may never actually appear on screen. But as the writer, you must understand where they have come from and why they are the way they are in order to know what their struggles are, how they need to grow and change as people, and how they’ll react in any given situation… and it might not be what you think it “should” be.

    For example, if your character starts the story as selfish and arrogant—why? What specific life experience caused them to be that way? It’s one thing to make a note that they had a narcissistic parent on your character profile. It’s another thing to be clear about a deeply humiliating moment when that parent stole the spotlight from their child at what should have been a moment of triumph. In other words, don’t just label your characters or the people who influenced them with character traits, but understand what happened to cause them to be the way they are, and believe, think, and act the way they do.

    You don’t have to know everything about them. But you have to know what impacts your characters that ties directly into your story.

    These character moments, when they become real for you, help the character become alive for the reader as well. Be able to empathize with your character and understand their painful life experiences. Then, you’ll be able to write them more authentically, whether or not any iota of backstory ends up in the final story.

  3. Drive your story with your characters.
    Your story will be most satisfying and impactful when it originates and grows out of who your characters are, and not just from hitting plot points. You want your characters to take actions and make choices and decisions that come from who they are as people and ultimately influence the story outcome as a result.

    At each key turning point in your story, check: Is this truly what this character would do right now? If not, what might you change to more authentically relate the story you want to tell and fully express your character?

    For example, when caught in the act doing something illegal, a narcissistic person who’s only motivated by their own financial interests will respond differently than an otherwise altruistic person breaking the law to protect their family. Character informs choice, action and response.

  4. Study how character change impacts plot.
    Over the course of your story, your protagonist must change (unless you’re writing a “franchise” hero, like James Bond).

    Go deep into exploring the course of character change and what it means on a nuanced level. Don’t just write out a character arc as an exercise. Invest time into studying how a person would have to change or what they would have to experience to be forced to move from one type of behavior to another. The progression of their experiences will (or should) impact your plot.

    If your character must overcome their fear of commitment, for example, you’ll want to know what specific event created that fear for them (their backstory), how that fear negatively affects their life right now (their status quo), what change might set them on a new path (the inciting incident), and what they’ll need to face in order to find the courage and inner resolve to face and resolve their fear (the climax).

    The point is to shift from having story-driven plot points to naturally connecting your character’s growth arc to your plot points, so you end up with a more organic, character-driven story. So even if you’re already a master of plot, both it and your characters become stronger when you craft them to work together.

  5. Be persistent.
    As a plot-focused writer, be persistent with your character work. If you know this is a weak area in your writing skill set, be willing to invest the time in getting to know the people you’re writing about. And do think of them as actual people! It may take multiple drafts and consistent work for them to come alive for you, but sticking with it until that happens will ultimately result in a better told, more memorable story that hooks your audience from beginning to end.

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Your weekend writer’s assignment

Spend some time with your characters this weekend. What’s happened in their lives that’s brought them to the place where your story begins? How do they need to grow and change? How does your story already reflect who they are, and how might it more fully deliver on who they are and who they’re becoming?

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