Writing: From Character to Plot

Last October, I suddenly lost all my files because of a) a new computer which lacked something all my others had had, a dedicated data disk and b) failure of the backup device I was using instead.  This post is not about computer stuff and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

This is about a different problem, how to recover a story that’s lost (whether the dog ate your homework, a tornado blew your house away, the basement flooded and that’s where your office was…), a story you were passionate about, when you cannot remember it word for word.  The days of my remembering large chunks of my prose word for word are gone…too many concussions, too many total words written.

First, there’s grieving for what’s lost, while quickly writing down the titles (and a 1-3 sentence sketch) of each thing not yet published somewhere that you want to recover.  What I lost (among the rest) were all the Paksworld stories I wrote last summer, intended for the next and future short fiction collections.    If your mind and heart are full of grief for them, you can’t write them “new,” the way you need to if they’re to be good.  That takes awhile–not a long while, but awhile–for each one.  Then, as your mind clears of sorrow for what was lost, you can look at your little sketchy thing.  In the case of the story I’m going to discuss here, I also had the published story that preceded it…I had broken a long story into two, because the long one would’ve been too long, and the lost one was the second. So I could re-read the first, and re-imagine what the second needed to be.   Then first-draft write the second, and edit to whatever seemed to work this time.

It’s taken me this long, and the almost-completion of the second recovery (the first recovery had been partially work-shopped in a group I’m in, so the first 1800 words were recoverable from others)  to fully grasp the process that’s working.   My actual writing process is almost automatic; I haven’t dissected it at this depth before, but it may be helpful to some of you, because everyone loses stuff they wish they hadn’t lost.  I’ve known all along that for me, there is no distinction between character-centered and plot-centered fiction….without character, no story.  Without plot, no story.  They’re not only both needed, they’re entwined, as much as our body parts don’t function alone but in the milieu that’s a human body.    But last night, thinking about the last two scenes of this story after I went to bed, a couple of things on the engineering side of writing, the “how does that work?” side, came clear.

How to analyze the fading memory of a story so that I could “freshen” the imagination to provide better drafting of the replacement story.   How to keep characters I remember from before from being wooden toys being moved on the stage by my memory of “what happened” when I want to re-create….not just re-write…them as living, organic beings.  The previous day’s writing had done that for about 2000 words, without my noticing, but then things slowed down…not stuck, just slower, and apparently slowed enough for part of my mind to watch what it was doing.

So, without “telling the story” and without names, here’s what emerged: two main characters, and two minor characters, with some other people on stage only as surfaces to bounce off of.  The two main characters are a teenage boy and a young but mature man in his twenties. The two minor characters are a ruler (appears at the end of the play to hand down a judgment)  and an eneny (hidden but obviously there’s *somebody*…revealed decades and three books later.)   No other published material covers this particular bit of history in the larger story-space, so the only possible conflicts with published material are in the memories of characters, and most of them are dead by then.  No need to worry about that.   Many people change a lot between their mid-late teens and middle age anyway.  I certainly did.

The story published in DEEDS OF YOUTH ends with the teenage boy and the adult man having reached a good, though still unequal, relationship.  The kid’s learned a lot, the man has learned some.  The new story puts them into an emergency situation that tests both of them: the kid’s using his new knowledge and skills in normal circumstances, but will he hold it together in an emergency?  The learning is new…how deep did it strike (and why?)   Teenagers like this have existed throughout human history: the privileged young inevitably think highly of themselves, imagine themselves to be greater than they are,  and if not corrected in some way (which often doesn’t happen) turn into arrogant, narcissistic disasters for their society (like quite a few we can think of in the 21st century.)  One of the standard growth patterns is the spoiled brat; they come in all levels of intelligence, all levels of physical ability, all levels of talent, including charistma, but their main identity is “over-entitled.”  These are the ones whose family lawyers tell the court “But he comes from a good family…think of his future career…” when he rapes a girl or drives drunk and kills someone.   Daddy may be a CEO of a company, or own a couple of car dealerships, or sit in the legislature…but excuses will be made, until (if) something smacks the kid with reality and he changes.  If he does.  And if he does change earlier, under the influence of the right adults, that change may crumble under too great a strain.  Or he may hold it together, live up to the new self he was slowly accreting, and become his best (or at least better) self.

The other major character already has become a man of great capacity, with the help of a good mentor–though born into privilege, he had it snatched away in the crime that killed one parent and landed him in a very, very bad situation for most of his childhood.  Can an abused child recover?  Yes, with the right kind of help.  Which he got.   But socially, professionally, he’s still in a precarious situation, living in a world where birth and inheritance matter more than character, where he is judged  on his rank (low) and money  (low-ish)  and he was brought in to advise men who are rich and aristocratic–who consider men like him barefly above house-servant, if that.  He’s  vulnerable,  like the hotshot young consultant brought into a company to complete a project others thought they didn’t need help with.  Can he overcome their resentment when apparent disaster strikes, or will he be swept away, disgraced, his nascent career destroyed?  Will his prior relationship with the teenager help him or not?

It doesn’t matter what genre this story is; the characters fit into many places, many times.  They are “generic” in that sense, which can sound boring…but actually gives me great scope for individualizing them.  What I need to do, as the re-writer of their stories (for both find a place in the books that come later in that setting)  is find a way to bring them completely alive in my head, so that I can “first-draft” the new story with all the parts of the mind involved in first-drafting working.   And that means giving their characters another look.  Finding something new in them, something that connected, however tenuously, with their characters later as well as their characters before.

Looked at that way, the problem can be solved.  At least, WriterMind is in a terrier mood, digging around in their character roots.  One gold nugget has already shown up.   I knew the boy was somewhat under the influence of another nobleman’s slightly older son–the older boy, at the urging of his own father, egging him on in his disrespect of the other MC main character.  None of that was shown in the previous story, but it was deep logic for it.  Subtly, the older boy also convinced the younger that he was too lax with people, that he needed to be more forceful because he wasn’t as tall as the older boy or as good looking.  The older boy didn’t appear at all in the previous version.  It will take only one brief appearance and a few words to set that up.  As for the older main character, he can be a shade less certain that the kid he was working with has learned deeply enough to be reliable in an emergency.  Again, a brief interaction, a word with his assistant.  I think that’s enough to enlist the part of my brain that I have never been able to force.

When it’s done it will be a different story than the one I wrote last summer…very similar, but not the same.   And if this analysis works, it will be as good (or, if I’m very lucky, better.)

6 thoughts on “Writing: From Character to Plot

  1. I always comment that writing is hard work and sometimes richly rewarding – not always but it is possible to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. It does keep you from just looking for an ice flow. So enjoy and when your next book comes to fruition your slavering fans will be there.

    Stay safe and sane and Happy New Year

    From up here where we are finally expecting snow.

  2. Thank you for sharing how your writer brain works. Can’t wait till your next book hits the shelves. Woke up to 3” of partly cloudy (snow) on the driveway here in north central Illinois. Hi-hoe, hi-hoe, off to snow blowing I go.

  3. Very glad you have a way to let first draft brain re-write those stories, particularly as I am pretty sure I know who you are talking about and seeing how that relationship develops will be interesting.

    If I do the “oh that is this trope” early in reading a story, as opposed to nearer the end or on thinking about it later, it probably means I won’t be re-reading as the trope is sticking out too much. But I mostly did sciences in school, along with history to make the time-tabling difficult, and stopped English and English Literature as soon as I was allowed to at sixteen. It’s not that I can’t analyse books, but it isn’t what I want to do when I am reading them, so the experience is lessened if I can see the bones too obviously.

  4. Thank you for sharing this! I love your work and insight into your thought process is always fascinating. My condolences over the HD loss, however – I’ve been in IT for 30 years and have seen a lot of those situations, unfortunately. It is much harder and more painful than most understand.

    While I’m here singing your praises, thank you for whatever got the Vatta line of audio books done in the Dramatized Adaptation from Graphic Audio. I have the hard covers from the original publishing, but it was such a treat to listen to them in that format. I’m hoping Vatta’s Peace (and future titles…? *doe eyes*) will recieve the same!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.