Characters and Plot

My books always start with a character or character(s). I create or find a cool character and I want to know more about them. I want to share them with other people and hope they find my character(s) as cool as I do. So far, I have three writing projects, each of them started because I wanted to know more about a particular character:

Poison in the Mind started with a character I played in a game. I know, I know. Stories based on games are almost always bad, however I couldn’t get  the character, Galen Gerhardt, out of my head. Galen is a mindbender, someone who can control other people’s thoughts. He both hates and is addicted to the use of this power.  He’s an escaped slave…maybe. There’s a lot of evidence that his memories have been tampered with, so even he doesn’t know what is true and what is not. And now he has to face down an ancient Death God and with the help of some companions (each with stories of their own), who claims it’s Galen’s fate to serve him. And he may just be right. Here I’m letting the characters drive the plot, not the game they played in. Right now, all game events except two have been thrown out the window and one of them’s trying to scootch away from the frame. Plus, I’ve had requests from other players to write their character’s story. I might do it too, if I can finish my own.

Lucifer’s Godchild also started with a game character who grew from a PC into an NPC and now into a fiction character. With each iteration, Rafe Fraizer, has mutated and changed to fit the demands of the current story. Starting as a street punk mage just out of his apprenticeship, he’s grown into a thousand-year-old jaded wizard, exiled to the mortal world by his faery consort and desperate to regain her good graces and return to Faery. But the kicker for me was when I realized that Rafe couldn’t be the viewpoint character for his own story. Because it turned out, it wasn’t his story to tell, it was that of his unwanted assistant, a transwoman named Sally Neighbors. NaNoWriMo 2013 project.

His Very Jewel was an exception for me, as the character who inspired me was an actual, historical person. I began an obsessive research binge on anything Tudor, especially the wives of Henry VIII. Plus, I liked the idea about writing a book that my mother (who loves historical fiction) might like to read. And I have a tendency to take maligned characters and give them a human face. In this case, it was Henry’s reviled fifth wife, Katherine Howard, that took my fancy. I wanted to try a hand at historical fiction; I wanted to portray a female character; I wanted to write about someone who’s life is pretty well known so that I didn’t have to make up a lot of “filler” events. Since my primary historical interest is Anglo-Saxon, I’ve been continuing my Tudor research binge. NaNoWriMo 2014 project.

So I’ve got these great characters with interesting and rich histories, who seem to go absolutely nowhere, plot-wise. Why? Because in each case, I’ve realized I have no antagonists. It tend to define their antagonists in general terms. Actually, in two of them, I have an antagonist: Galen has the Ancient Death God (cue booming voice here) and Katherine’s life has a perfect man to villainize.  But my problem seems to be I don’t know how to make use of antagonists; I have a terrible time figuring out exactly they do to become the villains that they are. And what my protagonists do to counter them.

If I were GMing any of these stories as a game, I throw the situation out to my players and watch them run with it. As a GM, all I have to do is think of a great character, think of an impossible situation and throw my PCs into, then just react to what they do. But it doesn’t seem to work so well when I get to fiction. When I throw them into my situation, they just sit there on the page. I’ve got great books on writing character, on writing plot, scenes, dialogue…. But I’ve yet to see a book on creating great antagonists.

What about you? What comes first for you: character or plot? Or something else? How do you create antagonists and then how do you use them to create your story and then your plot?

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Characters and Plot

  1. Usually, it’s the character, but not always. For example, I’ve written a ton of short stories and three novellas based on my South African MC, Jacob Vanderhoek. I imagined him for the first novella I wrote, both for him and overall. Once I had him, other stories ideas came up for various incidents in his life. Then i wanted to write a historic novel, so I came up for one based on the Second Boer War with Jacob’s great-grandfather as the protag. So for that one, story first, then the character.

    I understand the appeal of stories centered on normally reviled persons. That Boer war novel is centered on the Boers, who are generally despised for creating Apartheid. But that was a reaction to what happened to them in that war. I found other novels set in that war, but they’re all centered on the British. So far, my book appears to be unique.

    Now, as the antagonists, what you need to remember is that they are the PROTAGONIST of their own story arc. The conflict arises from the protagonist and antagonist being at cross-purposes. To drive your fiction, you need to effectively PLAY BOTH SIDES. I’ve always regretted you never got the full feel of one of my games. I had a vibrant backstories humming because I ran my NPCs like PCs and pursued their own objectives and goals. My players didn’t know there was designs running in the background against them. I was a covert antagonistic GM. (Shh, don’t tell. 😉 )

    So now that I’m writing, I’ve brought that approach to my fiction. I run scenes in my head. I’ve been able to write some really gnarly, hair-raising, bitter arguments. Another important secret is this: Frequently, when you’re in the zone, the characters can tell you themselves what is going on. I will always fondly recall the moment Jacob figured out he was undergoing a psyche-eval before I did.

    Also, with conflicts, sometimes antagonists aren’t people. They can be situations, an unfortunate downturn of events, and the like. But when they are people, which is typical, remember to have them pursue a goal that your MC does not what them to achieve.

    I hope that helps. I am excited you’re pursuing writing, Cherie. Best wishes. – Joe

    • @Joe- Thanks for the comment. I’ve always considered my NPCs to be the PCs of their own story. My biggest problem with antagonists is that the first ones I think up are usually very nebulous: death, society, etc. What I’ve realized that I need to create a person to be the representative of that idea.

      I wish I could run scenes in my head. That’s what’s kept me from writing fiction for so long: I can’t see the scenes. As a GM, I can say “Okay, Mika just threw Rafe through the front window of Ragnarok, what are you going to do?” or “Your superior is telling you that you need to rob a bank, what are you going to do?” Then my players figure out the events. But this is a whole other blog post I hope to get to the next few days.

      Thanks for the comment. You’ve given me something stuff to think about.

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