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Plotting & Characterization:
Always Ask "Why?"
by Marg McAlister
For about 8 years now, I’ve been a tutor for fiction courses for the Australian College of Journalism, for students undertaking courses in writing romance, crime or children’s stories. In that time, I’ve marked thousands of assignments. I’ve seen hundreds of plots, thousands of scenes, millions of words. And if I had to give writers one piece of advice after seeing all those millions of words, it would be this: always ask ‘WHY?’
Because I’ve seen too many characters forced into ridiculous situations by a careless author. I’ve seen potentially good plots twisted completely out of shape--because the writer finds it easier to force characters to do dumb things than to sit down and come up with a stronger plot.
Believe me, you don’t want your readers scratching their heads in puzzlement and saying ‘But why would she do a stupid thing like that?’ or ‘As if anyone would say that at a time like this!’ Once readers start saying stuff like that, your book’s a goner.
Suddenly, the reader can’t believe in the character anymore. She’s become a puppet in the hands of the author. (‘Oh,’ says Character, ‘You want me to agree to meet this guy I know is a psychopath in the middle of the night, in a deserted area of bushland? Without backup, without a weapon, and without letting anyone know where I’ve gone? Isn’t that a bit… well… stupid? Oh, I see, it’s necessary for the plot to work… Well, okay then.’)
Now come on. What would you do in this position?
(a) First, you would probably never in a million years agree to go anywhere to meet a known psychopath.
(b) If for some incomprehensible reason you did, you’d certainly leave messages with key people saying where you are going, who you are planning to meet, why you are going, when they should expect to hear from you again and what action they should take if they don’t.
And that leads us to the golden rule when you are planning action for one of your characters. First ask, ‘What would I do in this situation?’ Your common-sense response is probably what most people would do. Here’s a useful chart you can use to ask your characters WHY they’re doing or saying those things, while there’s still time to change it.
"Why" Questions That You Should Ask:
- Is this an action consistent with her character?
- Has he been programmed (through a lifetime's habits or through some form of brainwashing) to act in this way?
- Has she been driven beyond her normal limits? If so, how and why? Is this credible?
- Is he thinking clearly? If not, why not? Is this reason believable?
- Is there another option? If so, what? Would it be more logical for this character to take this option instead?
- Self-preservation is a strong human instinct. Is your character doing everything he can to keep himself safe while taking this action?
- Has the character had time to think? Would she have made a different decision if she had not had to decide on the spur of the moment?
- If the action taken has obviously been a bad decision, can this character change plans? Will this help the plot?
- What would you do in this situation? What would most people do?
- Is this character responding to change in some way?
- Is this a kneejerk reaction or a considered plan?
- Is your character being heroic or being an idiot? Is she weighing up all the options?
DIALOGUE: Why Is My Character SAYING This?
- Does her speech reflect her upbringing, ethics and/or her aspirations in life?
- Is he responding emotionally without thinking things through?
- Is she playing a role to get what she wants?
- Is this a logical response or is it a case of the author manipulating the character for the sake of the plot?
- Do the character's words lead her into more trouble?
- Do the character's words buy him time to find out some information or give the cavalry time to get there?
- Is she lying to get herself out of trouble?
- Is he lying to protect someone else?
If you get in first to ask your characters 'why?', you are far less likely to have editors and readers ask the sort of 'why' questions that you won't like--'Why should I buy a far-fetched plot like this one?' or 'Why would anyone want to keep reading this?'
(c) Marg McAlister
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