Character In Conflict

To create a plot, begin with the three questions about the protagonist that we asked in Chapter Three:

1. What does the protagonist want to accomplish or gain in the course of this story?

2. What will be the consequences, to her and to others, if she hits or misses this goal?

3. Who or what gets in her way?

These questions establish the nature of the conflict. The plot is the means by which the conflict is resolved. It describes how the protagonist does (or does not) overcome the obstacles that impede her and how she succeeds (or fails) in achieving her goal.

Which comes first, the plot or the characters? That's a chicken-and-egg question. If you have one without the other, you have no story. The two are so intricately bound together, it's impossible to separate them.

Sometimes your flour idea for a story might be a premise, some sort of dramatic situation or incident. The trick in that case is to find the right characters to adopt that premise as their own. At other times a character marches into your mind and announces he wants to be in a story. Then you must figure out what kind of situation and conflict this person would become involved in, given his particular personality, desires, motives, and circumstances.

Either way, the success of the story depends on your carefully matching the people to the plot. Frequently, what seem to be plotting problems are in fact problems with a character. If you try to force a character to get into a situation that's not right for him, or to act or react in ways he would not naturally do, he's likely to balk, which stalls your writing process; or to become wooden, which makes the story sound contrived or forced.

Veteran authors often say the characters will tell you the story if you sit back and listen. While that can be true, there's more to it than simply taking dictation. You may have to cajole the story out of them, presenting various ideas and asking, "Okay, will this work?" The characters will give you helpful answers if you pay attention.

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