Objective: objectives

On March 26, 2015, Kenzi Parsons wrote, How do you brainstorm a non-cliche plot when you have the characters and situation already? I find I have a really hard time coming up with a plot if I already have characters–I LOVE my characters but struggle with the story. Any ideas?

These two responses came in:

Erica Eliza: Look at the relationships and the conflicts that will arise between characters. Sort through other story ideas that never took off because they weren’t big enough to carry a whole book by themselves, and see how your characters would handle them.

Tracey Dyck: If you have your characters in place, they can help drive your plot. Look at their individual goals (which might conflict with each other!) and what obstacles, both personal and physical, might stand in their way. The Rafe-Stella situation Mrs. Levine invented in this post kind of touches on that. (March 18, 2015)

Kenzi Parsons answered: These are all great!! Reading these, I think my problem is that my character doesn’t have an objective to motivate the plot. Huh… I’d never thought of that before! How do y’all come up with goals/objectives for your characters if you created them before the plot?

More ideas followed:

carpelibris (Melissa Mead): I almost always come up with character before plot. (I have a dickens of a time with plot!) Usually who the character is helps determine what she wants, whom she hangs out with, what she will or won’t do, etc., and the plot grows out of that. For example, a lot of my characters are loners/misfits, which tends to make them either want to fit in, stand out, or get out of where they are.

Tracey Dyck: What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their desires–what they want more than anything? What do they want almost as badly, something that may run contrary to the primary desire? Could be situational, personal, etc. Maybe one person wants to feel needed, another wants to gain confidence, someone else wants to fix a relationship, and yet another person wants to stop an impending disaster.

These are wonderful.

In case Kenzi Parsons’ concerns weren’t completely resolved, here are some more thoughts:

It’s hard to believe any idea is good if we’re worried about cliches. My entire writing career–my whole body of work– wouldn’t exist if that were much on my mind. A Cinderella story? Fairies? Dragons? Princesses? They’ve been done repeatedly. I’d be sunk!

We all build on old ideas. We have to. Originality comes from what we do with those tired tropes. Yes, sadly, it is possible to write a story that sounds like a dozen other stories, and we don’t want to do that. My strategy for avoiding such a fate is notes, and within notes, lists. It’s a strategy that can help in plot-from-character creation.

Let’s start with what we’ve come up for our character, whom we’ll call Tamara. On the good side, she’s loyal, kind, and funny. On the bad, she has a one-track mind. When something captures her attention, all else sinks in importance. At those times, she’s irritable or even angry with anyone who tries to divert her. She has curly hair, long fingers, a wide smile, and small eyes. Kenzi Parsons may have gone much further than this, but for our purposes we have enough to get started.

We review Tamara’s attributes and think what her objectives might be. Her one-track mind suggests possibilities, so in our notes for this story we list what she might be obsessed about right now, and we keep in mind all the other things we know about her. We pledge to ourselves that we’re going to come up with at least ten possibilities, and, further, that we won’t judge any of them. Nothing is stupid or cliched when we write a list:

∙ She’s raising money for a daycare center in her town.

∙ She’s working on a stand-up comedy routine.

∙ She’s determined to rescue her best friend from a bad romantic relationship.

∙ She’s researching plastic surgery to make a person’s eyes bigger. Once she finds out what she needs, she’s going to devote herself to making it happen.

∙ She’s preparing to join the army (real army or fantasy army).

∙ She’s preparing to rescue the child hostages from their captors in the warring kingdom of Kuth.

∙ She’s developing plans for a flying machine.

∙ She’s trying to save from extinction a species of tiny frogs that still exist only in her rural county.

∙ She’s deep and dark into magic books to cure her brother of the mysterious condition that caused him to stop speaking.

∙ She’s plotting revenge against a relative who sabotaged her frog project.

There. Ten. But if nothing pleases us we can go for fifteen.

Tied up in her obsessions are objectives. She wants to succeed! We can move the plot forward by placing obstacles in her path, some that come from within her, some from circumstances, and some from our other characters, who may want her to fail or may bungle helping her. We can list possible obstacles.

I chose her one-track mind to concentrate on, but I could have picked another of her qualities, although long fingers might be hard, but I bet we could do it. Anyway, her loyalty is suggestive, too. Here’s a prompt: Think about where her loyalties lie. List ten possibilities. Then think about how they might morph into objectives. Create a story around one possibility.

Kenzi Parsons has created more characters. If we have more, we can keep them in mind as we invent our lists, and we can give them the list treatment, too, remembering as we do that their objectives need to relate to Tamara’s in helpful or unhelpful ways.

I love lists. If you read the notes for any of my books, you’d find lists cropping up every few pages (I often have over 200 pages of notes for a novel).

After we we’ve come up with our objectives and have thought of obstacles, we start imagining how they might play out in scenes. And we’re off with a starter plot!

More prompts:

∙ Pick one–or more–of Tamara’s obsessions and use it in a story.

∙ I decided to go with Melissa Mead’s misfit idea and imagined ten ways in which Tamara might be different. Pick one and use it in a story. Melissa Mead already suggested a few objectives, and you may think of more. Here are the ten ways:

  1. She has only one arm (with those long fingers)
  2. She has the same genetic condition that caused Abraham Lincoln to be so tall and ??? At the age of twelve she’s a foot taller than everyone she knows.
  3. Her family have been farmers for centuries. She lives in a farming community. Nobody cares about anything but the size of pigs and pumpkins. She hates all of it. She has a brown thumb, and the livestock hate her.
  4. She has a different fashion sense than everyone else. She looks wrong on every occasion.
  5. She’s way smarter than everyone else around her, off-the-charts smarter.
  6. She’s the stupidest in her family and her school.
  7. She can’t pronounce the long i.
  8. Her brain is oddly wired. Psychologists keep diagnosing her with an alphabet soup of acronyms, but nothing really fits.
  9. She sees other people as numbers. People who appear as long numbers scare her, but she feels close to people who have a 9 in their number. (Look! This is the ninth in my list! What a coincidence!)
  10. She’s an identical twin, but although she and her sister look exactly alike, that’s where the similarities end.

Have fun, and save what you write!


We’re continuing with last week’s questions, so here they are again:

On February 29, 2012, Maddi wrote, I’m having some trouble getting “inspired.” I have my plot worked out, I’m just having problems with the in-between stuff like character development and other small events. I’m not even sure if I can make it into a good quality piece of writing. I’ve been turning to Legend of Zelda fanfiction. It works, but I want to produce something that is my own idea. Lately my spelling has been really off, even though I’m a pretty good speller. Any ideas?

Then last week TsuneEmbers wrote, I’ve been having way too much trouble w/ my own writing lately, as in it won’t come out and actually get anywhere. This makes me sad since I love writing stuff. I think I kinda lost my drive there, when I realized that one of my ideas was way too complicated, and not working at all. =/ I tried simplifying it out to a more workable form, but it still doesn’t actually feel like it can work yet.

I am toying with another idea of mine though, but of course, my usual plotting problems bit that one, so I’m currently stuck with not writing anything. I have a few major characters in my head already, and a vague idea of what I want to happen to them, but that’s about it. The vague idea could be considered a plot in a sense, I guess, but it doesn’t give me any idea over where to actually start the story. Not to mention that the word plot tends to make me scared every time someone mentions it, because I’m really more of a character person, and I don’t get this plotting thing as well.

Let’s start with a prompt similar to one in Writing Magic. Let’s take two classics I hope you know well, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and switch heroines. If you haven’t read them, now may be the time. Then come back and try the prompt, which is to rewrite the scenes in each book where heroine and hero first encounter each other. In Jane Eyre this is when Rochester’s horse throws him, and in Pride and Prejudice it’s at a dance, but a scene at Bingley’s house when Jane is ill might be even better. If you like, after you finish the scene, keep going.

What you’ll find, I hope, is that plot changes when character changes. The two can’t be teased apart. If you continue with the prompt you’ll have an enormously changed story on your hands. Maddi and TsuneEmbers, your separate problems may be just as entwined.

Maddi, you have your plot, but you may not have figured out what sort of character will go in the direction of your story. Let’s imagine that a heroine, Iola, lives with her parents and her brother Osiah in the village of Ewark. She’s out gathering firewood, and when she returns, she finds her village destroyed by the savage Rindik clan. Her parents have been killed, but one of the few survivors tells her that her four-year-old brother has been taken. In the plot plan, Iola, after many trials, saves her brother and becomes leader of her clan. You (obviously this you isn’t you anymore, Maddi, just an anonymous writer trying to find her way) know what the trials are and how the triumph comes about, but Iola seems to be sleepwalking through it all. Characters come and go, saying their lines woodenly. You are having a harder and harder time sitting down to write.

What to do?

Well, there are lots of questions to ask yourself. Here are a few: What’s Iola like? Is she naturally brave? If not, how does she persuade herself to take on the task ahead? If she is brave, brave how? Is she foolhardy? Does she overestimate her abilities? Why was she fetching firewood at the fateful moment? (Maybe she stamped off after an argument with her father. Maybe she offered to get the firewood to avoid being stuck with watching her brother. Either of these could make her feel pretty guilty.)

Here’s another prompt: Write down at least five more questions about Iola. Notice that I’ve been choosing questions that may increase conflict, that may give her a harder time achieving her goals. But some questions (and answers) may help her.

Now consider a secondary character. Suppose Iola needs an ally. Let’s imagine that she has to win supporters to her cause, but, although she’s a sterling person, good to the core, she puts her foot in her mouth whenever she opens it. She needs honey-tongued Ennio to be her ambassador. Now you need to ask questions about him. Why is he willing to endanger himself? Why would he throw his lot in with Iola, of all the other leader possibilities? Why is he willing to be subordinate to her? (You may need to think more about Iola to answer some of these.) A third prompt: more questions about him.

And a fourth: Based on your questions and your answers, write the first scene in your story between Iola and Ennio.

And a fifth: If you’re Maddi or are having a problem like hers, return to your own story now and ask questions. Rewrite a scene, then come back to the blog.

Now that you’re back if you went away, another way to make a story less mechanical is to ensure the reader cares about the stakes, which in this case may involve making the reader love Iola and her little brother Osiah and possibly her parents. Which suggests more questions. What is Osiah like? What was his relationship with his big sister? Same for the parents.

Again, a prompt. Write this scene: Iola is making her way across rough terrain. She may be tracking the Rendik or hurrying to the nearest village, but she has time to contemplate. As she’s figuring out what to do next, include her feelings and a few thoughts that will illuminate her relationship with her family. You can go to a full-blown flashback, but you can also just drop in tidbits. For example, maybe she’s thinking about how her mother taught her outdoor survival techniques and her father used to joke about her mom’s methods and Osiah would laugh along without understanding the meaning of any of it.

This contemplation while traveling is just one example, but including thoughts and feelings regularly (almost constantly) helps bring a character to life and engages the reader too.

TsuneEmbers, you think you know your characters. But maybe you know them in a static way and you don’t know what they’ll do. You might review your main character’s profile and, based on it, list ten things that could happen to him that would give him trouble, funny trouble or serious misery. Let your mind go. See if one or more of your ideas begins to suggest a story. See if you can incorporate a few of the problems into the story. Ask yourself what your main wants and also what he definitely, absolutely under any circumstance does not want, which, naturally, you can give him.

Let’s take Iola again. Suppose she’s been sheltered, a little over-protected, by her family, which she’s resented since she turned twelve, but there’s been an effect. She’s not sure of herself, because she hasn’t been tested. Deep down she wonders if her parents protected her because they feared she wasn’t capable. Let’s say, along the lines I already suggested, she speaks her mind forthrightly and often offends. Then, when she offends someone and realization hits, she feels doubly bad, embarrassed about the way she expressed herself and awful for the person she criticized, whom she believes must be mortified. Let’s make her generous and stubborn and give her an impish sense of humor. And anything else you want to throw in. Or, of course, you can make her entirely different from what I’ve laid out.

Final prompt: Knowing what you’ve invented about Iola, write the scene when she returns to the village and discovers the massacre. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!