Plots – Are Your Characters Driving or Are You?

Plots are the work of the devil. Yes, I’m sorry, but they are. They join internal conflict in their very own special circle of hell. At least, in my own personal writing hell. Why is this you say? Well, because in Modern Heat land (and no doubt in Modern/Presents land too), the plot needs to be driven by the characters. But surely every plot is driven by the characters? After all, without any characters, you wouldn’t have a plot right?

It’s true that of course without any characters you wouldn’t have a plot, but it does not mean that every plot is character driven. This is something that I have slowly been coming to learn over the past few months, especially after Michelle pointed out the flaws in my synopses. In fact, it was something I already knew, but just didn’t understand until now.

So what’s the difference? Well, I’m still learning and naturally enough I am no expert but here’s what I see as the difference. In your suspense/mystery/SF/fantasy/paranormal etc the action is usually plot driven. This is when external circumstances force the characters to act. But character driven plots are where the action is driven by decisions and actions the character makes themselves and not due to external circumstances (which is why internal conflict is so important because this affects how they act). Now, feel free to tell me this is a load of old bollocks and I’ve got it wrong, but that’s what I think is the difference.

Anyway, like I said, for Modern Heat, the action/plot must be driven by the hero and heroine. Which means that if you have an overly complicated set up, you end up forcing your h&h to act in response to your plot, and not because of decisions or actions that they make themselves. Which in turn can make them act in a contrived way. Does that make sense?

A prime example of this is my rejected ms – which was rejected partly because of the setup and because I was trying to force my heroine into acting in a way that she wouldn’t. My setup was that my heroine had to use an internet dating site to set up a blind date for research she was doing into the internet dating scene. This was not the problem. The problem was that I had made my heroine a socially inept geek for whom blind dates and dating full stop was anaethma. Good in terms of setting up tension, but not so good for a character driven plot. Why not? Well, why would a socially inept geek want this assignment in the first place? And so I had to make her go through with it by setting up a pushy friend, a broken relationship she wanted to get over, a boss that would fire her if she didn’t, etc, etc. You see how I complicated everything? Just so I could force my poor heroine to go on her date.

Now making this setup character driven would have been easy if only I had made my heroine make the decision to go through with the date herself. So she takes charge of the action rather than her responding to the actions of the plot. Maybe she took the blind date assignment because she wanted to do something different, maybe she took it because she wanted to change her life. But in order to make her take charge, she would have to have been a different sort heroine, with a different sort of conflict, and that would mean rewriting the whole book – hence the rejection.

Which brings me to the current wip. I have a fake engagement in the middle of it and although this does stem from an action the character takes, I fear I have manipulated things in order to make the character take that action rather than letting things take their natural course. Since this is in the synopsis I have submitted, I’m slightly reluctant to take it out but my instinct is to do so. Should I trust my instinct I wonder? But that’s a whole other post so I’ll stop there!

What does everyone else think about character driven plots? Does this make sense or am I barking up the wrong tree? Maybe I’m simply barking full stop!

19 thoughts on “Plots – Are Your Characters Driving or Are You?”

  1. Jackie, great post! I’m a big believer in following your instincts. As wannabe authors we read in the series we’re targeting and assimilate much more information than I think we are conscious of. So I say – if your gut is telling you to nix it – do it. I don’t think a deviation from the synopsis is a big no-no. I think all editors trust you to do what YOU think is right for your story. But that’s just my two cents worth. And heck, I’m not published yet so what do I know . . .LOL!

    Amy

  2. Hey Amy! Yes, you’re right re assimilating info. It’s funny isn’t it? Just goes to show how right they are when the editors say read as much of the line you’re targetting as you can.
    Anyway, I’m thinking that I’m going with my instinct. Having made many mistakes with complicated setups in the past, I am now quite conscious of when I’m manipulating my characters and I’m certainly doing that now. Wretched things! Think it’s re-write city for me…:-)

  3. Oh Jackie – I know what you mean. I too think that leave it out if in doubt. Is it because of your synopsis that you want to leave it in? Can you see a better plot that will fit the characters esp your heroine more seemlessly??

  4. Actually Janette, it was an external plot device from an earlier draft that I kept in and made an action taken by my heroine. But it still doesn’t make it any more believable. Its function is to enforce intimacy but I’ve just discovered another way I can do that without it seeming contrived. At least, I think so… 😉

  5. The key is the ‘seeming’ contrived I reckon. Everything is game it just needs to come from the characters. How to make sure it does… no idea.
    =)
    I’m keen to hear your alternative!

  6. Becca, it’s quite complicated due to the internal conflicts etc, but my heroine is very risk averse and in an effort to live on the wild side, she told someone that she had just got engaged to her one night stand. However this seemed to involve me setting up all kinds of manipulations such as jealous lovers etc in order to get her to say it.
    Cos after all, being egaged is a huge step.
    So my alternative now is that she still tells someone that in fact she didn’t have a one night stand with the hero, that she’s known him for years, and that they’re in a relationship together. This is now to prove that she is NOT a risk taker. That she’s as safe and dependable as she ever was. Clear as mud? 🙂

    Of course, this may be just as contrived and my plot may STILL be one vast manipulation on my part but who knows?? The main thing is that the decision to pretend to be in a relationship is taken by her and stems from her internal conflict. And puts the hero in an awkward position – which is just where I want him. 😉

  7. Nix it. Absolutely. I have just done the same thing in my WIP. Beautiful scene, eloquently written, loved it to bits, but was too contrived so it had to go…although I have kept it on file as it would make a great First Kiss scene in a competition.

  8. Great post Jackie! I have my own thoughts on contrived plots (or lack of thoughts actually) and plan to post something on this later as well. When I have the permission 🙂

    But I think following instinct is probably the way to go. That said, is it your instinct or just that you think you’re wrong from what other’s have said?! Oh golly… I’m making no sense at all, so I’ll just go…

  9. No, I know what you mean Rach. Definitely it’s my instinct and not what someone’s told me. When I found myself having to reorganise and add to my heroine’s past and conflict just to get her to say that she was engaged, I thought that I was heading down the wrong track. I was definitely MAKING her do it, she wasn’t going to do it herself. Which meant I was forcing her to do something she wouldn’t do and thus act out of character. Now I’ve rewritten it, I don’t have to manipulate her backstory at all, it just flows naturally from her character.

    Of course, I could be completely wrong and the whole thing is a mistake! 🙂

    Be keen to read your post when you do get to post it!

  10. Well… I’m late aren’t I?

    I’m almost tempted to tell you to keep it just because it’s already gone 😉 Contrary aren’t I?

    I’m a fan of instinct though I don’t know how trustworthy my own are. Looking forward to your post on that. Happy rewriting 😉

  11. Funny you should say that, Lacey. Instinct is just something I was thinking ‘hmmm, perhaps I should post on that too’. Not that I have much to say about it!

  12. Actually plot and character are linked. The only way to reveal character is through events.
    What you are really saying is that the internal personal stakes are driving the story, much more than the external public stakes.
    It has to be more than yearning to the internal relationship dynamic or otherwise, like Twilight you suddenly need lots of secondaries to drive the plot forward.

  13. Oh yes, exactly Michelle. As I was composing this post I was thinking that the decisions made by the characters are the result of who they are and this is linked to their internal conflict rather than what’s happeneing externally. It’s quite complicated isn’t it?
    Interesting re Twilight. And yes, neither protagonists there do anything but long for each other which makes it very static. Maybe that was why it annoyed me so much.
    Hmmm, have to think about the secondaries driving the plot. I may still be guilty of that…

  14. I think sticking with your instincts is good advice and you can’t go far wrong.

    My take on the plot dilemma is that your characters do what they do because of who they are. If they did something different (because say they were my characters) that would be the difference between my plot and yours. Or someone else’s.

    Hmm, I hope that makes sense, it made so much sense in my head until I started to write it down!!

  15. I’m with everyone who advised you to trust your instincts. You know these characters best and so can decide what’s in keeping.

    I do quite like a good fake engagement though, so am a bit sad it’s gone.

    🙂

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