Monday, October 21, 2013

Mapping Your Main Character To Plot

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine the other day. She was telling me about a friend of hers who she hadn’t seen in about ten years, and how different this person was from who she’d remembered. The reason was the sheer number of things that had happened to her between now and then, and how much she had grown in the process.

Sound familiar? It should. This is the classic formula for a main character in a story. The character begins with one viewpoint, and then ends with something different. The amount of difference depends on the person, of course, and a dramatic difference isn’t needed. What we need is realistic growth, which happens gradually.

That brings up two questions:
1. How do we know, really know, whether our characters grow?
2. How can we make sure that growth happens realistically?

The answer to the first question is relatively straight-forward. We simply look at the character’s viewpoint at the beginning of the story and then compare it to her viewpoint at the end. If they’re different, then we know she has grown on some level. The harder question is to know whether her growth is realistic.

I’ve read many stories where the main character is going along and going along, and then, at the end, *pow*, she ‘gets’ it. I can appreciate that. I’ve had my own *pow* moments, as have others, I’m sure. And, to us, it seems like it has happened all-of-a-sudden-like. But, really, it hasn’t. There were many factors involved, and each one changed us a little bit before that epiphany moment. We’d even begun to act on that epiphany even before it became an epiphany, but we probably weren’t aware of it. These are the kinds of subtleties that need to be woven into the story to ensure realistic growth, even when epiphanies are involved.

So, how do we do this? It’s definitely not easy, and it’s a lot of work, but it is possible. The best way to see it is to map your character's reactions to the main plot points in the story. Is the result some kind of growth? And, if not, is that okay?

In most cases, you’ll want some growth. Even a miniscule amount. My favorite kind of story is where the main character takes baby steps of growth throughout the story, and then takes a single, normal-sized step of growth at the end. Those always seem most realistic to me, and I identify with them better. That said, if the story truly calls for no growth, then there shouldn’t be any.

Laying out the plot and mapping your character’s growth to it will allow you to see the character’s arc clearly, and then you can change it if it doesn’t fit the needs of the story. It’s a lot of work, but you will have a much deeper, more rounded story in the end.


Sarah Negovetich said...

Great post! And timely as lots of us are mapping out our stories for Nano. :)

Johnell DeWitt said...

Good advice to watch for in character development.

kimhaas said...

"The best way to see it is to map your character's reactions to the main plot points in the story. Is the result some kind of growth? And, if not, is that okay? " This is an excellent revising tool. Thank you for sharing. And I agree about the baby step then the normal amount of growth at then. Much more relatable.

deborahbrasket said...

Great advice, thanks.