Coincidently, while I’ve been wandering in and out of my wife’s current binge re-watch of The West Wing, I happened upon Aaron Sorkin on The Big Interview with Dan Rather and had to rewind it and write down something he said that I thought was fantastic, simple, and vital advice for any author of fiction. He said:
…it really boils down to intention and obstacle. That’s all drama is. Somebody wants something; something’s standing in their way of getting it. They want the money, they want the girl, they want to get to Philadelphia—it doesn’t matter. They’ve got to want it. If they need it, that’s even better. Something—whatever the obstacle is—has to be formidable. You can’t be able to get rid of it with a phone call or they just walk around the obstacle. Once I know what the intention and obstacle is, then we get to the part of writing that I love, because we just got through the part of writing that makes you want to put your head through a wall.
I just couldn’t agree more—and I love how succinctly he put it. That is both the definition of “plot,” while also defining what it means to have a “character-driven” story. Killing multiple birds with that one stone, it also blows up the absurd notion of plot-driven vs. character-driven fiction as separate entities. If you’ve received, probably while working on your MFA in creative writing, the terrible notion that genre fiction is “plot-driven” and literary fiction is “character-driven” and that’s why the latter is always better than the former, please stick with me while I bring on more expert witnesses to disabuse you of that notion.
How about Kurt Vonnegut, from a Paris Review interview:
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.
When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.
Yes? So then by all means, start with characters driving your story. Start, as both Sorkin and Vonnegut advise, with intention. A character (hero, villain, or anyone in between) wants—or better, as Sorkin pointed out, needs—something for some reason, and goes out to get it. Then you throw some obstacle in that character’s way, something that makes it difficult for the character to achieve that goal. Do that on both the micro and macro level. Intention/obstacle should be apparent in every scene. That POV character intends this, and is frustrated, surprised, horrified (and so on) by that. Likewise and simultaneously: in this novel, the protagonist intends to… and the villain intends to… and both run into obstacles, including each other, until whatever happens in the end, which will be most satisfying if it has a personal impact on both the hero and the villain.
In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Charlie Jane Anders wrote:
You’ll often hear people talk a lot about a character having an “arc,” which brings to mind the image of an arrow shot in the air, curving upward and then downward again. But another useful image is a piece of coal coming under immense pressure and becoming a diamond. People don’t change when life is easy and straightforward—they change when life is a bloody confusing nightmare.
So the beginning of the “arc,” or for Anders the state of “immense pressure,” is that character’s intention, and the pressure itself is caused by the obstacle. And yes, we could make one or both of those plural: intentions and obstacles.
As you’re considering this, ask—and really actually ask yourself this question—at the beginning of each scene: What are my POV character’s intentions here? And wants are fine, but needs are better. Then start thinking about the limitless number of potential obstacles that might stand in that character’s way, keeping in mind what Steven James said in his book Story Trumps Structure:
Easy choices make for weak fiction.
To touch readers on an emotional level, you’ll need your main character to desire something your readers also desire.
In each scene the protagonist will move forward from goal to setback(s) to a decision that drives things forward. Your character will seek something, fail in a way that makes things worse, process what just happened, and then proceed into the next scene of the story.
Four steps: seek, fail, process, proceed.
We could render this: seek = intend to get what you need, fail = succumb to obstacle, process = rethink intention or double down on it, and proceed = intend to get what you need. Or, as Anne Lamott said in Bird By Bird:
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.
In other words, all plots are character-driven.
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