Getting to Know You: Letting Character Determine Plot

I recently taught a Saturday writing workshop at Rosemont College, and the topic I chose to discuss came from the Sylvia Plath quote I love, “Character is fate.” In getting to the workshop, my own character dictated how I arrived. As someone who hates highway driving, I decided to take two trains—one from Trenton to Philadelphia and another from 30th Street Station to Rosemont. A journey that would have taken me 51 minutes by car, instead took two hours.  I am the worst type of driver; insecure, aggressive, and directionally-challenged, which means I never know where I’m going, and am prone to quick lane changes. The train seemed the safer option. However, the train was delayed. Then, once I arrived at the Rosemont station, I got lost, and found myself wandering campus before finally being rescued by a student (whom I forced to walk me to directly to Lawrence Hall).

In this particular example, nothing untoward happened to me. The train didn’t derail, no weirdly talkative man sat next to me, and my late arrival did not cause Carla, the workshop leader, to scream at me in dismay (her character is one of acceptance and calm. Instead of being miffed, she offered me a doughnut).  However, if I were writing about a character with my specific driving hang-up, this particular phobia could have proved a turning point for the plot. I am again taking a slightly circuitous route to return to the first sentence; in in your own writing, your character should be what moves your plot forward. Her hang-ups, her fears, her proclivities mean she will react to a situation in a particular manner, setting in motion the action of the story in a way no other character would.

As a fiction writer, you need to know what your character fears and what she loves, what makes her feel safe, and the lengths she would go to in order to maintain her sense of comfort. Is she the type of person who would rather wake up at 7 a.m. to catch an early train, or sleep in and speed in her red Maserati toward her destination? (For the record, I don’t own a Maserati, I just like the way the word sounds). Give yourself a character writing check list to figure out some of the details that might not be coming through in your writing. You can find many of them online (Google “character check list”). In this way, you accomplish two things: you flesh out your character and you get a pass on struggling with your story for a day.

Here are some questions to consider: how does he dress? What’s the last item he bought? What is his most striking physical feature? What kind of words does she use? What does she want more than anything? What was she doing five months from the start of the story? What will she be doing five months from now? Where was she born? What’s his astrological sign? What’s her full name? Are her parents alive or dead? Brothers or sisters? Where is she in the family pecking order? In a fire, what five objects would he risk his life for? What does her bedroom look like? What’s the highest level of education he reached and what was his favorite subject in school? What has she been praised for her whole life? What keeps him up at night? Does she believe in God or Buddha or fairies or does she believe that when you put your head in the oven, you are simply dead?

You may figure out all of these details and none of them end up in your story. However, you will most certainly have created a clearer picture of your protagonist. You may also find that one or two of these questions will open a door in your story, one that leads you somewhere you had not previously imagined.