I was looking through photos from my hubby’s trip out to Zion National Park last weekend (I’ll post a picture at the end), then the procrastination bug hit and I wandered into other photo files. I came across this charming black and white photo of a little boy on a bench taken over thirty years ago. It was in a collection from several friends taken during a year when our spouses went to school together.
I’m not sure who the child is or even who took the photo, but it reminded me of a talk presented at a writers’ convention last week. The topic was “What is a Story?” based on the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron. One piece of wisdom she imparted that resonated with me is that the plot is the surface of the story, but what brings it to life is what is hidden under the surface. It is this underneath portion made up of the main character that is the real story. The way the character changes and moves forward is what creates the plot that will unfold.
This little boy is looking out upon the world, assessing and gathering in knowledge of all he sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells. He, like all children, will collect this endless flow of data to build a life vision, but is unable to evaluate it with the wisdom of years. His experiences will color his world as he grows. What if when your protagonist was young, he dreamed of being a soccer player and mowed lawns to earn money for a special sport camp staffed by his superstar hero? If someone in his household stole his money so he couldn't attend, he might lose trust in family and grow up stingy or distrustful of those who supposedly love him.
Intuitively, I develop a loose plot idea and have the character’s backstory fleshed out in my head, but sometimes having the obvious pointed out can save time in plotting the character’s arc. Lisa’s point hit home, when recently I had to trade out the main character of book three in a new series. I had shifted the timeline of the series and thus the place where the adventure would occur. My original politician-handling hero went from being in Washington D.C. to the jungle, and his growth arc simply didn’t fit with flailing around in humidity and thorny undergrowth. Thus, I snatched up another secondary character from book one (who turned out to be perfect for the job) and planted him in the jungle…but then the story shut down. Why? Because as Lisa noted, the character is the story and he drives the plot. I hadn’t fully fleshed out the new character’s early life and backstory. What made him into the man he is today and how can he grow through the book? Once I developed that, the story, plot, and characters were off and running, just in a slightly different direction than the first hero.
Think back through some of your favorite books and figure out how the hero or heroine changed through the story and how their experiences and beliefs from childhood affected the storyline. I bet you discover no matter how complicated the plot, it is the character’s growth that made the story stand out.
Sandy Parks writes action-adventure thrillers with capable women and tough heroes with some quirky sidekicks thrown in. Coming next year is the start of a new romantic thriller science-fiction series. Check out her books at sandyparksauthor.com.