Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Something from Nothing

You don't need a plot in order to write a novel, or even a setting. No, this isn't a joke at the expense of some of the currently published 'literary' works.

You can write an entire novel by asking two simple questions:
  1. Who is my main character?
  2. What character arc should I use?
By answering the first question, you will be able to fill in a lot of details about the setting. Is your character likeable? What is your main character's job? Does the character go out with friends frequently, or stay home and do arts and crafts? The more you establish who your character is, the easier it will be to figure out a plot line.

If you've written up a character profile with every detail from the character's cradle to her or her grave, and you still don't have an idea for the plot, there are a few possibilities. Either:
  • The character you discovered is a secondary one, and not the main character you originally thought, or
  • You're being too nice to the character, and don't want to thrown any problems at him or her.
If the former is true in your case, look to the other characters around your first one. Maybe one of those was your main character all along, hiding in the woodwork.

If the latter is true, you need to get inventive...and you can start by picking a character arc.

Do you want this story to have a happy ending or a sad one? Do you want your character to:
  • have a hard-won triumph,
  • experience a bitter-sweet loss, or
  • lose him/herself completely?

Pick one of the three, and then start lobbing obstacles and problems at your main character.

If you want to write a happy ending, make the obstacles challenging, but not hopeless. Think of almost any epic adventure story. The characters start out inexperienced, gain training as they travel, and then are able to overcome the villain, save the princess, win the kingdom, and/or get back home safely.

If you want a bitter-sweet loss, let the character have some wins and some losses along the way, and the lose at the end, but in some poignant, meaningful fashion. Think of action films and novels where the accomplished martial artist wins by saving someone, but sacrifices his or her life in the process. This is a mixed ending, leaving the reader feeling proud of the character's choice, but sad that the character didn't live to see the better world he or she helped to win.

If you want to set your main character on a downward spiral, get ready to write tragedy, and lots of it. The obstacles and problems in this kind of story are so severe that no one could handle them, not even your main character. The character's failure (either death or some compromise of morality) is inevitable... but you can stave it off and off glimpses of possible, happier conclusions... right up until the bottom falls out and the character loses. There are fewer examples of this kind of story, but when paired with satire or a bitter commentary on a societal norm, this character arc can be powerful, whereas the first two are just fun and fulfilling.

Try writing each of the three character arcs for the character in the writing prompt below. You can write a summary (a few paragraphs), or turn it into a longer project.

Writing Prompt: He directed one of his coworkers, motioning and pointing to show where the concrete had to be poured. As he baked under the hot sun, he wondered if there was anything more to life than this. It certainly wasn't what he'd expected, growing up like he had...

Have fun, and keep writing!

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