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Are your stories character-driven or plot-driven? When creating stories, character and plot are both important but for some of us, character is the major basis for storytelling.

When creating stories, character and conflict go hand in hand. How do you describe the main characters in your story? What traits or behavior makes them memorable? Think of any person you know well. Could you write a profile on that personís goals, likes, dislikes, appearance, attitudes, strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies?

Take, for example, an actress playing a role in a movie. She goes through make-up, is given a certain wardrobe and becomes that character. She thinks, talks and behaves in a way that reflects her visualization of how that character acts. A blink, a wink, or any small gesture is huge on screen. Nuances show the complexity and sensitivity of that character.

One exercise is if you are developing a major fictional character make a list including appearance, past experiences, personality traits, motivation, goals, etc. that are relevant to the story you want to create. This may seem to be more trouble than itís worth. However, that person you are creating has a history, which may impact how he or she behaves in the context of your story. If the character is credible, his or her present and future decisions are based on life experience, personality and thought processes.

If a woman character is in conflict, like witnessing a crime and being kidnapped by the perpetrator, the way she goes about dealing with that conflict is dependent on her instincts, fears, willpower, courage, and cleverness. The outcome may or may not be what she wants or foresees. She may use everything in her power to escape and get revenge on her enemy even if she has to kill him. When she is tested, her true colors show through.

I donít believe heroes should be perfect. I think heroes should have a flaw or Achilles heel. If they are invulnerable, thereís no conflict because the outcome is inevitable. However, if the hero is facing a dilemma and fails to make the right choice, and spends the rest of the storyline in an effort to win back what he lost, thatís more interesting.

I had one writing instructor who emphasized that protagonists should evolve over the course of the story and not remain static. They should go through some sort of transition on an internal and/or external level. Main characters donít necessarily have to learn a lesson, but go through a change, however subtle or huge that may be. It could be a revelation, a goal achieved or a new look on life. Another instructor stated, make your main characters pro-active and motivated to take action to push the plot forward. Their desire to take action should flow naturally from their character and makes for dynamic writing.

I read that antagonists donít always have to be absolutely evil. An antagonist may be as strong a character as the protagonist. However, to make him or her credible, their reasons for what they do must be logical in their own frame of mind. A thief may have the motive of stealing paintings not only for money but to show his daring and cleverness. A scientist may have unethical practices in his desire to carry out experiments in genetic mutations to further science. Or if the police are hunting a known murderer, what are the logical steps the killer would take for his own survival?

Secondary characters who ďtag alongĒ may give insight into the main characters. They may show a different perspective or even tell the story from their point of view.

Once you have your main character outlined ask yourself, what is the true test for this character? What needs to happen to bring out the best or the worst in your characters? What conflict would trouble them? What dilemmas would they face when put in a particular situation?

Sometimes plot and character develop at the same time. But as you write your story look for opportunities to show whatís going on internally for your characters and how their words and actions reflect that. Explore their inner demons, emotions and thoughts.

My idiom this month is ďon the brink.Ē I think we are all at a point of discovery, which implies we are on the verge of something new and exciting be it in our writing or daily life. Iím not a fortune-teller, but I think if you prepare your characters as an intrinsic part of the plotline before you begin to write, your stories will take shape in an organic way.

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The following comments are for "Musings: by Sandra Yuen MacKay"
by sandra

@ Sandra
We already discussed this in private, but I wanted to discuss this here as well: This column has a huge effect on me, and how I perceive my writing.

For years, I worked with nonfiction; and now, I'm writing my own collection of short stories. Over the next couple of years, I'm pulling together more collections of short stories (based on Lucumi/Yoruba patakis), and I'm starting my first novel. Even though my writing is publishable, I've never thought much about how to develop my characters.

I do develop them as I write, but after reading this part of your column, now I have ideas as to how I can develop them more strongly:

"When creating stories, character and conflict go hand in hand. How do you describe the main characters in your story? What traits or behavior makes them memorable? Think of any person you know well. Could you write a profile on that personís goals, likes, dislikes, appearance, attitudes, strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies?"

I think, as I develop my future works, I'm going to focus on writing character profiles even before I develop my plots.

Thanks for some wonderful advice!


( Posted by: OchaniLele [Member] On: May 1, 2009 )

This is one of your strongest columns ever, congrats! I hope every member reads it as it is a virtual mini course on how to develop characters within a story, yet the material is mighty telling in its content. I appreciated your use of the actress example as when I'm writing my characters I go so far as to become an actor. I become the person I'm writing in my mind, acting in thought and character their responses to people and situations on the paper as I type. Well done Sandra a very impressive piece of work on your part. Gale

( Posted by: Gale [Member] On: May 1, 2009 )

@ Ochanilele, Gale
Thanks for your wonderful comments! My education in creative writing is from reading books, taking night school classes and using writer forums. When I wrote this article I drew from all the different experiences and observations I've had around writing.

Stuart, there's so much written about parts of a novel, but I hoped I could summarize here in less than 800 words what I've learned and observed regarding multidimensional characterization. I'm glad you got something out of it and I hope others do too. That's major!

Gale, to become the actor is a wonderful tool. Again, a great addition to the writer's toolbox. I enjoyed your winning story in the writers' challenge. I encourage others to read your tale.


( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: May 1, 2009 )

Hi Sandra
Thanks for writing an interesting article on characters and plotting. Sometimes it is impossible to separate the character, the plot , the location, the period and the dialogue from each other. The complete 'body' forms the story.
But one thing also is the 'track record' of a person which may be future/or past. With SF stories about a future seems as 'realistic' as any past bad actions.
So what makes up the basis of a plot? Take a sleeping person. that person is without dialogue and without a character. What we see is what we get. But wake that person up and then see what action follows.
After the second world war many soldiers never ever forgot their years of torture. A freed western soldier after the Burma campaign might fall asleep and appear peaceful. But on being woken up something surfaced from his brain. Memories can drive actions and observing that can often lead to interesting plot formation.
There are so many aspects to writing a story it often becomes instinct to know what to do but at the same time is is useful to see things listed out. That surely helps to clarify all the thoughts a writer has.
Best wishes

( Posted by: Cleveland W. Gibson [Member] On: May 3, 2009 )

Smarty pants;-)
This was a very well written informative piece. Thanks for posting it. Keep on...



( Posted by: TheRealKarmaTseringLhamo [Member] On: May 3, 2009 )

@ Cleveland, Karma
Hi Cleveland,
Thank you. It's true sometimes character, plot, time, and place are so entwined they become one, fitting together like a puzzle. My next column will be about plotting.

Thanks, Karma!

( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: May 3, 2009 )

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