Structure is everything for a novel these days, and one of the challenges facing any novelist is the need to align plot with character arcs.
The usual problem, though, is that authors often begin their stories with plot ideas rather than a character – you know, ‘it would be cool to set a story on some desert planet with two suns’, or ‘what would Earth be like after the zombie apocalypse?’, or ‘I’ve got a great idea for a story about a heist where the get-away vehicles are really small cars.’
On my experience few authors – certainly few beginning authors – begin with ‘I’ve invented character X, who has to learn something. How can they do this?’
I am not sure why. Possibly it’s the influence of TV and movies, and particularly the way specific – and dramatic – scenes capture the imagination.
At any rate, the challenge becomes turning that plot idea into something that is going to work with Character X, who learns something. Because the act of Character X learning something is the essence of the novel. Plot and setting is secondary, though in the best stories it’s integral with what the character has to learn.
Go read Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea for an example.
Of course it’s all very well to say ‘well, just do this’, but the issue is always how. My suggestions:
- If you’ve started with a great or inspiring plot or setting, jot down the salient points about what people do and need in it. What sort of things happen in this world? In our world, for instance, lots of things happen that are specific to the cultures and the way people live. If your story is set in the real world, which of those cultures is it set in, and when? If it’s in a fantasy world, how does your fantasy world match up to the real world? What are the differences?
- Now turn to the characters. What sort of character would inhabit this world? What would they need to learn? Is there anything specific about the world that they key into that informs this?
The intersection between the ‘things that happen’ and the way that emerging Character X keys into them is the start of the integration between plot and character arc – but only the start, because a character arc needs to have dynamic movement to it. So does a plot. And all those components have to align.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015