It's impossible to talk about plotting your novel without discussing character as the two are inevitably intertwined throughout your book. I also don't believe there should be any difference between genres, as character is just as important in genre thrillers or romance as it is in literary fiction.
However, it’s important not to get too hung up on the order in which you have your ideas, as each author starts with different elements of a story at different times.
Sometimes you'll begin with plot ideas; sometimes you'll start with character ideas and both are fine, so go with the flow 🙂
Here are some tips for new novelists around developing character alongside plot.
(1) Keep it simple
When you are choosing characters and outlining the plot, particularly if it’s your first novel, you want to make sure you keep things relatively simple.
You don't need to have a Game of Thrones style multi-cast plot or write a Harry Potter style epic. Many writers who are also readers love those books, so they want to create stories like that. But you're making it very hard on yourself and you could get lost in trying to tell too many stories at the same time.
Better to finish one book by keeping it simple. Take one strong character, put them through a journey, and have them either get what they want or fail. Start with that linear story and focus on one main protagonist.
You will hopefully be a writer for a long time. So you can always challenge yourself later by adding in a larger cast of characters or having a more complex plot in later books.
(2) What is your character’s motivation?
What does the character want and why do they want it?
These questions can lead us to create plot events that will try to stop our character getting what they want. The ultimate resolution of any story is whether your protagonist gets what they want, and how did they get there?
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games volunteers for the games so she can save her sister from the Reaping. So (a) she wants to save her sister and then (b) she wants to stay alive and win the games.
Another example is Frank Underwood in House of Cards. He wants to be president and hold the ultimate power in the nation. What or who will stand in his way?
(3) Intertwine character with plot
Once you know what your character wants, you can develop plot ideas by deciding how to make life difficult for them.
The obstacles that litter your character’s path create a good plot. After all, as James Scott Bell says, “Happy people in happy land doesn't make a very good story.” Even romances are about two people who meet and then have a hell of a time actually getting together!
Using the earlier examples, Katniss has to face the obstacles of the Games and her own internal resistance to becoming a leader. Frank Underwood has to get rid of the people who want to wrest power from him. He does that by offering money, benefits, and promotions … or achieving what he wants with blood on his hands.
So, if you're struggling with plot ideas, keep going back to your main character. What do they want? What stops them getting it? What can you put in the way so they can't get what they want and then how do they overcome that?
(4) Remember that readers care about characters first
Of course your reader is interested in the plot of your novel, but they also need to be invested in the outcome for your characters.
Events take place in your book but no one will care unless they are experienced from the point of view of the character. You can see evidence of this on the TV news every day. There is always some terrible tragedy going on in the world, but people only care when it is made personal and a story is told about how the conflict impacts this mother, or this little boy.
The reader has to experience the struggles as if they were their own. As Lisa Cron says in Story Genius,
“We're wired to crave, hunt for, and latch on to what the protagonist feels so that we can experience his struggles as if they were our own.”
[You can listen/read/watch an interview with Lisa Cron on writing compelling stories here.]
Take your plot out of the intellectual zone into the emotional zone. If you can make it personal to the character, then readers will care.
(5) Generate plot ideas using action and reaction
Let's get into more detail about how you can generate plot ideas that will intertwine with your character’s motivation.
All you really need to do is think of one idea and the effect on your character. That impact and the subsequent actions of your protagonist will then take you on to the next idea.
In The Hunger Games, the Reaping is called and Prim is chosen. This is the inciting incident. It's the event that takes Katniss out of her ordinary life. If Prim had not been chosen, Katniss could have continued to shoot rabbits in the forest.
But when Prim is chosen, Katniss reacts by volunteering to take her place. The inciting incident followed by the reaction. You can then take Katniss's selection for the Games as the action, and the reaction is that she must train for the games and meet the other Tributes, which leads into other plot points.
Of course, when you're plotting your book, the linear ideas might not appear in your finished novel in exactly the same order.
Morgan doesn't start the series as an ARKANE agent but in order to become one, her back story needed to include appropriate skills. If she had just been an academic, she would have been a geek character rather than being in the thick of the action as an agent.
Crucially she needed to know how to use a gun, which isn't so common in the UK as it is in the US 🙂
The solution to my bigger plot ideas was to make her an ex-military psychologist. I also made her Israeli because I knew Israel would play a big part in the series story-lines. So essentially, I created her back story to facilitate the plot elements around a secret agency. Although of course, there's a lot more than Morgan Sierra than just being able to shoot … 🙂
(6) Make sure your antagonists are strong enough for your plot
There need to be antagonists that are a foil for your main character, and they need to be strong enough to facilitate the plot you want.
In Destroyer of Worlds, ARKANE book 8, I came up with the character of Asha Kapoor. She intends to kill millions by activating an ancient weapon. But why would she want to cause destruction at that level? This is obviously a thriller-type conundrum 🙂
Asha is the daughter of a multi-billionaire who's just died, so she has everything you could ever want in the world. But spiritually she's unhappy and as we delve into her backstory, we find the Aghori, part of an outcast cult who embrace death. Now these are worthy, and believable, antagonists 🙂 It's also helluva fun to write!
(7) Include interesting sub-plots
To keep it simple, you want to have one main character who wants to achieve something specific. Plot happens to stop them getting that thing and antagonists get in the way. That's the main story-line.
But what about their relationships with friends or family? What else are they struggling with? Who else is in the story and what's going on with them? How do these characters interact with each other?
Game of Thrones is an epic tale of a struggle for the Iron Throne, but the most powerful sub-plots follow the relationships within families. How do the Stark siblings get on when their father is killed? How does the parent/sibling/child relationship play out within the Lannister family?
As you think about how your novel will pan out, is how can you bring in relationships between your characters, and sub-plots for these other characters?
(8) The importance of setting on your plot
The setting of your novel will also have a bearing on how your plot develops. We only have to look at Game of Thrones to see how the physicality of setting affects events. The huge wall that separates the wild north from the rest of Westeros is almost a character in itself. There are stories centered on the Wall, with people storming it or trying to climb over it, or amongst those who live at Castle Black protecting the south. There is also a door in the Wall and the characters who make it through are a big part of the story.
I use setting for ideas and the richness of the places I travel always make it into my books. My London Psychic trilogy is set in (surprise, surprise!) London and the characters and the plot are woven into the very landscape of the city.
So, think about where your novel is set and how you can use aspects of setting to bring in plot elements.
(9) Use conflict to drive your plot forward
This can come in many forms:
External Conflict: This is usually person against person but could take any format where two opposing forces are pitched against each other.
- Man versus nature: This is another example of external conflict and can be seen clearly in the 2015 Oscar Winner The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio's character squares up against the bear. It can also be seen in big apocalyptic type films, which include a tidal wave, meteorite heading to earth or a volcano. In these we follow the character’s quest to survive. I use this theme in Risen Gods, which is set in New Zealand on the Pacific Rim of Fire.
- Man versus society: An example of this is Brave New World, where man is pitted against established society.
- Man versus supernatural monster or technology: The films I. or Ex Machina are a great example of the latter. While The Stand is a combination of all three types of external conflict: man versus a plague; man versus man; and then also man versus a supernatural character.
Internal Conflict: Here the conflict arises from within the character themselves, maybe because they have something to overcome or fear. Internal conflict adds complexity to the story, but it’s important that this internal conflict is integral to your character and not just bolted on.
How do you create character and plot together when thinking about your novel ideas? Which comes first for you? Please join the conversation and leave a comment below.
If you need help with writing your novel, check out my multimedia course, How to Write a Novel: From Idea to Finished Manuscript.