Character drives plot (the big lesson from my first novel)

My very first novel was only read by a handful of close friends. I never self-published it because it was awful. It just didn’t work. I titled it Life’s Little Jokes. I reread it more or less recently, and I realized WHY it doesn’t work.

  • It’s a complete melodrama, but that’s not why it doesn’t work. That was intentional.
  • The characters are somewhat archetypal: the virtuous knight; the spunky princess; the young, scheming duke; the sister of the knight’s best friend. But that was also intentional. I was very aware of that as I wrote the story.
  • It started as a short story that I expanded scene by scene and subplot by subplot, but that’s also not a problem in itself.

So why doesn’t the story work?

It doesn’t work because I forced a plot, for the sake of a specific ending, that just doesn’t flow credibly from the events that lead up to it.

In other words, I let PLOT force the characters’ hands.

  • the knight’s best friend turns total traitor out of envy, which doesn’t really make sense given who he is.
  • his sister runs off to war, mainly just because I wanted an Eponine scene (I’m obsessed with Les Miserables), during which there is WAY too much dialogue coming from a mortally wounded person.
  • I have a group of women turn back and return to an unprotected city under threat of war, which makes… no sense at all. Given who they are, it makes NO sense.

Forcing plot points is a BIG mistake as a writer. I learned from it, I think, unconsciously, because when I moved on from that novel to draft my fantasy trilogy (in process now to be re-released in a second edition), I wrote as a “pantser” (without an outline.) In the meantime, I had also read On Writing by Stephen King, which talks a bit about this issue.

So when I moved on to write my trilogy:

  • I had no idea where the story was leading in any of those novels.
  • I didn’t force any plot point. There were times I thought the plot was heading to a particular place, and then it totally went off in a different direction. I let that happen.
  • Instead of thinking in terms of plot, I thought in terms of character. If I needed a character to act a certain way, I asked myself, how can I plausibly adjust the circumstances around him or her, so that the action I need the character to take is what he or she would choose?
  • I made sure to know the characters well and let them drive the developing plot.
  • I had SOOO many fun “OH WOW” moments when I realized what my characters, being their own people, would naturally do to react to developing plot situations.
  • I was ASTOUNDED how things naturally built, and how subplots connected that I had no idea would end up connecting. How things that I had no idea would factor into future installments ended up majorly driving the plot of a future installment.

The truth is, I think, whether you write as a planner or a pantser, a successful, delightful, plausible storyline is always character driven.

Have you had fun moments where your characters and their creative, ingenuity, or decisions surprised you?

9 responses to “Character drives plot (the big lesson from my first novel)”

  1. Yes, my characters have surprised me- during both the development and when during writing the book (I am specifically referring to my main WIP)

    Tale of the Cattail Forest is a middle grade fantasy- as a matter of fact, one of my characters was added very last minute (glad I did that). It actually took me a long time to understand my antagonist’s actions (trying to explain why Sarge is a bully- it ended up being because he was born into an unloving family; mostly due to his abusive father)

    As a matter of fact, if your characters actually start writing your book in the middle of the book, let them- I did and it surprised me on what they did

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve added and deleted characters last minute myself! Isn’t it so crazy how characters surprise you? Tale of the Cattail Forest sounds like a lot of fun!!!


      1. It is- as in doing things you aren’t expecting

        The relationships between author and character is special- almost as if they are our children


      2. YES! it’s so amazing. I love it.


      3. thanks for sharing!


      4. Oops, didn’t mean to do that link twice: due to that post, having a weak summary blurb—-here is a better one below

        After moving to Fairy Creek, where the Fairy Frogs live, Sparkle explores her new surroundings to pursue her craft. As a drawer she is always looking for adventure and new places to draw. But when she ventures out beyond Fairy Creek into Graysloup, she encounters some toads and makes unlikely friendships and meets new challenges. The friendships all begin when she decides to befriend a young toad named Marge.

        Things become challenging after encountering Sarge, leader of the toads, who tries to prevent all the friendships. Will the courage and cleverness of the Fairy Frogs stop Sarge from breaking up these new friendships? The frogs and toads learn how to use their talents and explore new ways of developing compassion and friendships.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. […] Don’t be like writer guy. Don’t force plot points you want to happen even when they don’t make sense and they makes things feel stilted. Let your characters be who they are and they will authentically drive the plot. (I wrote a post a while back about how I learned this lesson writing my first unpublished novel.) […]


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