Can characters shape the plot?

“I usually have one firm character, perhaps two, and an underlying theme – certainly a situation. And from then on, if it works at all, the characters shape the plot rather than the other way round.” Jessica Anderson in Yacker 2

I’m in awe of writers who start a story or novel with a specific and detailed outline of the plot. Writers such as Iris Murdock plan everything in great detail before they write the first sentence. Every chapter and conversation is planned. If I could write like that I’d save myself a lot of the floundering angst that accompanies my first drafts.

For me a plot only seems to form when an interesting character develops motives or personality traits capable of triggering events, or a desire or need the reader can be encouraged to care about.

Not suprising perhaps when what I love about writing, and reading, or for that matter, life, is people: what they think, feel, what drives them, what they’re prepared to do to under stress, how they conduct their relationships with others and the world around them.

My mother dreaded taking me on the bus when I was as child. I’d zone in on some fascinating but unsuspecting victim and stare. If they turned away from the obnoxious kid I’d get out of my seat, moving round to see them better.

Sometimes, even now, when we’re in public, my husband has to lean close and whisper, “Close your mouth. You’re staring.”

My stories centre around the main characters and come directly from what I discover about them. The plot for The Flood began with two feisty old sisters who were facing the threat of being forced out of their family home by well-meaning family and the strictures of government. I had been thinking about them for years and when a major flood inundated our area these two elements sprang together. I couldn’t have written this story without first knowing what the sisters looked like, about their background and their childhood, their personality and their relationships, how they would feel and act in this situation. Who they were created the plot.

Very little of what I discovered about them went directly into the story. But without that background work the sisters wouldn’t have felt like real people to me, and they wouldn’t have been able to show me how they would handle the difficulties of the situation.

I have learned to ignore the demands of plot, at least at first, and work on understanding and exploring the characters. By struggling to achieve lives of their own, my characters will usually suggest a situation that will challenge them to the utmost.

In this way my stories develop something resembling a plot.

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One Response to Can characters shape the plot?

  1. Pingback: Write What You Know | Following The Dream

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