Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Plot versus Character, Part 1
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
You’ve got this great idea for a story, but you’re not sure how to tell it. That’s what happened to me in the Abel story, as you’ll recall (October 2005), and it’s not really that unusual. I think that’s why people who want to write never get started. Naming the players is just too great a hurdle. The thing to do is to look at both angles:Identify the characters and let them find their own storyIdentify a plot and populate it as necessaryA great thing to do when you’re just starting out is to write character studies. There can be little vignettes, if you like, but the purpose here is to describe someone. I’ll try one, and you watch.The Whumper: He’s a man of almost average height, always nattily dressed with a slight pot-belly. His hair was a medium brown, but is now graying and is currently merely dull. He spends a lot of time in the sun, so he could be 55 or 75, although he thinks he looks 25. He only dates women who look 25 and none of them stay very long. He’s a transplanted-New Yorker, a Jewish diamond dealer, and after 25 years in San Francisco, he hasn’t figured out that in-your-face is not a motivator here. Losing his hearing, his television and radio are cranked up loudly, but the music he listens to is straight out of the 70s and 80s, an odd juxtaposition. He has not learned to close doors and his neighbors are treated to the details of when he showers (two whumps with the sliding glass door—one to open and one to close), when he shaves (three whumps with the medicine chest), when he dresses, (a series of modulated whumps: the dresser drawer, the closet door, and a final medicine chest door as he combs his hair), and finally, a huge building-rattling whump as he flings the front door closed behind him. A generally pleasant fellow, he has trouble knowing when he crosses the line into invading privacy, but he is blissfully unaware and doesn’t understand why certain of his neighbors give him dirty looks. Do you have a sense of him? Can you put him into a story yet? Me either. There are too many details. Let’s try another and see if there’s a story between the two.The Thumper: A tall, slender, and androgynously handsome Asian man, he’s a recent college graduate with his first job. It pays well, the commute is mild, and the hours aren’t bad. He is affable, laughs a lot, and has plenty of friends from college and new friends from his job. He dates frequently but doesn’t settle into a relationship. He drinks heavily almost every day after work and tends to come home late and listen to music loudly, over which he shouts hilarious pleasantries at his visitors. The party starts at 4AM on weekends. His place is the after-hours club, and he cranks the bass of his beloved techno music up to the maximum. Only the thumps of bass and the shouting are audible from outside his apartment. His apartment is Spartan, with only a bed in the bedroom and a couple of cushions on the floor in the living room. All of his furnishings are white. He has a nice stereo system and a huge television with a prominent Playstation, which are apparently more fun to play when drunk. He has a small card table with a computer on it in his kitchen. He has covered one living room wall with a white sheet, tacking it up with nails every six inches, and his friends use Sharpie pens to autograph the sheet and mark it with graffiti. He has applied to an Ivy League business school’s graduate program and has no doubt that he will get in and move away. Do you have a sense of him? Can you put him in a story yet? Me either. Has all this been for naught?Of course not. Let’s see what these characters have in common. Maybe the story is there.They are both men. Neither has (or wants?) a steady relationship with a woman. Both are inconsiderate of their neighbors. Both listen to music loudly, and it isn’t good music. It’s the sort of music that only bits and pieces escape through the walls. Ah HA! There’s at least one story here. You could tell the tale of dueling noisiness, with each testosterone-laden gent cranking up the volume until a speaker breaks or glass shatters. They could be friends and go clubbing together; and the older one could have more success with young women (he’s a jeweler, after all) but the younger has greater partying stamina. Or you could tell the tale as the revenge of the neighbor who lives between them. Perhaps you need to keep writing character studies until an obvious plot reveals itself. That’s okay. These studies are excellent exercises. You might use the characters somewhere and you might not. It doesn’t matter. You probably wouldn’t include these descriptions, you’d just write the story knowing these things about them, revealing their character through their actions. You know that even if you already have a plot you’re trying to populate, you have to edit and tighten everything anyway, so the effort is not in vain. It’s kind of like going for a run every day. There isn’t any obvious immediate use for it, but you know there’s a payoff.The other stumper is to have a plot and not know how to tell it. In the case of my Abel story, I imagined who the narrator could be until I found the right one to tell the tale. But what if you only have a circumstance and no ready-made character like Abel?You can examine the various narrators, like I did in the Abel story. That’s one way, and it worked for me in that circumstance. Another thing you can try is to just start telling the story and see if the characters evolve on their own. This is scarier because the characters do seem to evolve on their own, and often, they kind of take over.Once upon a time, I was riding the train/subway called BART through the transbay tube from Oakland to San Francisco in the middle of the night. The tube and train make a horrible screaming noise as we hit the nadir and start to rise again. I was reading a Stephen King story at the time. You can imagine what happened. I put my character in a tunnel. The tunnel wasn’t initially scary, but that soon changed. I solved the problem of not knowing who was telling the story by not ever providing any identifying facts. Heh. I like asking the people who read this story to tell me if the protagonist (there’s only one character) is male or female, how old he or she is, and when the story takes place. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and that’s part of why the story works. It’s a very dark tale. But relatively few stories can be told with undefined protagonists. (Once upon a time, I thought I’d try to write a story where all the characters had androgynous names—Stacy, Chris, Tony, Terry, and so forth—and avoid pronouns and any other revelation of gender. It’s a cute concept, but I never had a good story to tell with it, so it never happened.) Many times, the characters themselves make an otherwise dull story come to life. In the next blog, I’ll talk about what to do when you have a plot and no characters.