Plots and character assassinations

I am now polishing the last chapter of the novel I’ve been re-writing for the last few months.

The ending surprised me.

How can that be, you may well ask. After all, you’re in control. Well, not entirely.

Some writers will tell you that they know exactly what is going to happen on the last page when they write the first word of the first paragraph. They say this because they have spent weeks or months drawing plot arcs and filling out detailed questionnaires and even psychological profiles on their characters.

(Or maybe they write the ending first and work backwards. I suppose that could work, too.)

More power to them. I tried that approach, I really did. I filled out all those forms and neatly printed my information according to instructions on all the neatly stacked note cards. I got rather good at drawing plot arcs and discussing Aristotle’s theory of how a story ought to be constructed. (I understand he also thought, incorrectly, that women have fewer teeth than men, something that you can easily check. Why does anybody listen to this guy?)

In the end, all those diagrams and cards didn’t help. Didn’t help in the sense of how being an expert on medieval lingerie didn’t help you design your operating system to run on a 128-bit microchip with a unique instruction set. That kind of didn’t help.

When I wrote Version 1.0 a couple of years ago, I got seriously bogged down to the point where everything . . . ground . . .to . . . a . . . halt. I had no idea what was supposed to happen next.

I now believe I know why.

I have come to the conclusion that a plot is what emerges from the train wreck of the personalities of the characters and the initial situation into which you drop them.

As an example, let’s imagine the sort of initial situation that begins one of P. G. Wodehouse’s little gems about Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. (If through some tragedy in your early life you have never heard of Mr. Wodehouse’s J&W stories, run, do not walk, to the nearest library and remedy this unfortunate deficiency. No one has ever done comic dialogue better than Mr. Wodehouse. If you listen carefully you can hear echos of his style in Monty Python skits and Douglas Adam’s comic science fiction.)

Anyway, typically Bertie finds himself trying to satisfy the eccentric demands of some autocratic aunt or to help a friend who is even more clueless than he is. He invariably makes a hash of things and has to be rescued by his valet, Jeeves, who has about five times Bertie’s intelligence.

Now imagine that we remove Bertie from the story and replace him with another character, Thomas Harris’s Doctor Hannibal Lecter.

“Good morning, Jeeves.”
“Good morning, sir.”
Jeeves, excellent fellow, hands me my morning cup of perfectly brewed tea. “I trust the evening went satisfactorily?”
“Very well indeed” I took a sip. “After I lobotomized Aunt Agatha, she was far less demanding, although, sadly, even more loquacious.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
“Oh, hardly worth mentioning. Her frontal lobes fried up nicely and went perfectly with that delightful salmon quiche you prepared.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m pleased that the evening was not a total loss. Shall I put the Goldberg Variations on the Victrola before I dispose of the remains of last evening’s repast?”
“Yes, thank you.” Excellent fellow Jeeves. Can’t imagine where I’d find another like him.

You see? Change the protagonist and you get a wildly different story, even when the initial situation remains the same.

In the time between Version 1.0 and Version 2.0, I wrote a lot of back story on the major characters. I spent months and wrote chapters that I never intended to include in the finished book. I wasn’t playing psychiatric social worker or administering personality inventories.

I was getting to know my characters the way you get to know real people, by listening to them and watching what they do.

Once you know someone’s character and personality, you have a pretty good idea of how she will react to a given situation.

After you have gotten to know your characters, you drop them into your initial situation and ask, “Okay, what would Sarah do?”

She acts. This creates a new situation. How would your characters react to it? Answer that question and create yet another new situation. Keep this up until some sort of crisis occurs that creates a final, relatively static final situation. That’s it.

A couple of days ago, I thought I was finished, but realized there was an important character who was not, so to speak, going to go gentle into that good night. Being honest about how she would react to her situation resulted in a different, and, I believe, better ending.

Keep plotting your evil deeds, my friends, and Happy Halloween!

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6 thoughts on “Plots and character assassinations

      • I had never noticed that before. It’s interesting how different people will pick up on different aspects of the same thing. I remember a writing exercise to write a description of a lake as seen by someone who just committed a murder, but not to mention anything about the murder. You’re very observant!

      • Haha! What an interesting writing exercise…I’ve love to see different people’s perspective for that. I’m lovingly referred to as “Eagle Eyes” at my work 😛 I pick up on the most random things.

    • A very sound practice! If your experience is anything like mine, it’s probably quite a bit different. When I save a day’s work on a fragment of something, such as a chapter, I include the date in the file name: chapter 9 110112. That way, if I decide that maybe an earlier version worked better, I have it available.

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