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Lesson 3 Chapter 1 Module 1
You might be worrying that when I talk about character-first, I mean some really boring novel where nothing happens. The characters just sit around talking, or, even worse, the main character just has big thoughts, or big flashbacks, never leaving the house.
The good news: that's not what I mean at all!
PS Don't miss the "coaching Session," below
Once you've worked through this lesson, make sure to try out the interactive prompt at the end. That's where we'll "coach" an imaginary writer called Bob who is feeling stuck with his novel.
Note: in this course, where you see a lesson with video and text and a prompt, my goal is never to just repeat the information from one medium to the next (the text, in other words, is not a transcript of the video). So if you watch the video, you can still learn a lot from the text -- and from the prompt.
This is a course about fun books
When I talk about character-first plotting, I'm talking about exciting, engaging books, like the first Jack Reacher novel, or Mexican Gothic. I'm definitely not talking about books where nothing happens.
(Partly, this is a limitation of my teaching ability. There are amazing, gripping novels where "nothing happens," and I love reading those peculiar, enthralling masterpieces -- but I have no idea how to teach you how they work!)
The point is: character-first writing does not mean writing a boring book.
In fact, when I coach writers one-on-one, I frequently end up recommending they introduce more plot, not less. Often, the story they bring to me has lots of elements (travel to new places, numerous side characters, parallel mysteries), and we first work to condense, unify, and streamline that plan, focusing the reader's attention on the central, most engaging component of the tale, its heart. We might merge two characters, figure out how to keep all the dramatic action in one city, or place certain plot-lines in a "sequel box," for the writer to return to after this story is over.
However, when we've done that work, we usually then need to add more plot. Because plot is not meant to be a static relationship. The reader gets to know the protagonist in one sense, and then, as the story builds, they learn more. So we have to design the story in a way that encourages that relationship to develop.
The Project and the Conceit
Later in this course, I'll talk in detail about two ideas that help you "add plot" to your tale.
One is "the project": the idea that at the start of the novel, the protagonist isn't just sitting around wanting something. They aren't waiting around for the inciting incident. Rather, they are actively at work: they already have a plan and they have an opportunity to do something about it.
It's so easy to invent a protagonist who is just sitting around moping at the start of a novel!
Trust me, I know. We fix that problem by creating an avenue or opportunity for the protagonist to achieve something they really want -- on page one.
The other is "the conceit." I don't really like this term (it's my fault, as I invented it), but it captures something real, something you encounter at the mid-point of many novels: once the protagonist discovers what is really going on, or what is really at stake, they also discover some kind of deadline. They don't just learn that their strange uncle is really a dark spirit trying to swallow the moon: they also discover that they need to collect the four special things to stop him. They don't just learn that their former officer did some bad things during the war; they also discover that he has kidnapped the school cheerleader and there are only two days left to rescue her.
The "project" and the "conceit" are not foolproof solutions, and they might need some adjustment for your particular story. But they do help a high percentage of the time! This approach has helped hundreds of writers in the past, and it's beloved by fantasy writers, mystery writers, romance writers, and literary writers.
The "project" and the "conceit" are useful to understand as a principle because they point at a truth of storytelling: the reader expects their relationship to the protagonist, the setting, the mysteries, and the world of your fiction to constantly develop. So we need enough plot to generate this forward motion.
Forward motion? What does that mean?
People love to say: plot reveals character. And I think that's true. But it's also the case that readers of fiction expect the secrets of your story to arrive slowly. They want experiences, not explanations.
If you open with a ten-page discussion of Danish philosophy, a one-hundred page flashback explaining your character's personality, or a series of diagrams describing the magic system, readers are likely to put the book down. Now, readers do want those things! They love learning about magic systems and troubled family history. But they expect their understanding to arrive later in the book, not on page one.
So the protagonist has to keep moving, and trying things, in order to generate the reader buy-in and engagement that gains you the permission to deliver your world-building.
Here's an example.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, is a classic novel with a phenomenal plot. When I teach that novel, the final chapter devastates my students.
Now, later in this course, I'll give a detailed description of that novel's plot, and do an analysis of key scenes. But for now, let's just describe the story in general:
In New York in the 19th century, the rich, idle young man, Newland Archer, is set to marry May Welland, who, despite her mildly eccentric family, seems like the ideal woman for him: she is young, innocent, and demure. Newland will cement his place in upper-class New York society through this marriage, and while there are early, brief hints that he is not really satisfied by his own life, Newland can't imagine any other way to live.
[Note: we can already detect two plot-lines here: the marriage goal and the "not satisfied" goal. At the start, the marriage goal is the only one Newland and the narrator focus on: that's his project. At the start, the more internal goal (not being satisfied) is hidden from us -- you wouldn't notice it if you only read the early chapters. Newland seems basically content! It's only later, as the plot develops, that we get to see this other element of the story.]
In other words: on page one, Newland believes that he is headed for a simple story: marry the girl everyone approves of. However, also in chapter one, when the new engagement is just about to be announced, something unexpected happens. Newland discovers that May's scandalous cousin, Ellen, has just returned to the city, fleeing a brutal marriage. And fine New York society of this time period refuses to accept divorce.
Although Archer finds Ellen bizarre, unsympathetic, disrespectful, and unattractive, in order to make his engagement to May succeed, he finds himself defending her to all her critics. He has to work harder and harder to integrate her back into fine society. As he does this, he becomes more and more aware of his isolation from the people he lives among (the second plot-line we mentioned earlier), and his growing feelings for Ellen. To his shock and dismay, he is falling in love with her, but if their love is ever discovered, he will ruin both their lives.
Now the "real plot" of the book becomes clear, the part that everyone remembers and which forms the central image on film posters: Archer's romantic journey towards Ellen.
The point is: it is only through the plot that we truly get to know Newland Archer. Without the plot, we would have a very trivial understanding of him; he would be trivial to us. Additionally, we only come to understand the other major characters -- May and Ellen -- through Archer and his interactions with them. And we only get to know New York society of this time period through him and his struggles.
Finally, and most importantly: the consequences of Newland's decisions -- to stay with May or try to live with Ellen -- only come to mean something to us because they mean something to Newland, first. The stakes of the plot are not meaningful in the abstract; they are only meaningful because they are happening to our ambassador, Newland Archer.
So plot does not just reveal character: it reveals everything else, too. Only when the story begins do we truly learn how things work in that world.
That's what character-first writing means.
Now for a practical example...
Let's try this idea out.
Imagine that you and I are coaching a writer, Bob. He is a British writer in his forties, and he wants to write a novel about two British bands from the 1990s, Blur and Oasis.
Bob, himself, is in his late forties now (the 90s are a long time ago, sadly). He also lives in the US now: he is imagining a female main character, about his age, also living in the US, who is remembering her wild youth going to concerts in England and watching this musical rivalry unfold.
Sounds good, right? However, Bob can't make progress in the story. He keeps making small changes and trying to fix things, and he feels like the plot is sprawling out of control.
And he is not wrong! When we start talking to Bob about his story, we quickly discover two big problems:
- not enough story
- too much story
It might seem impossible for Bob to have both too much and not enough story in his plan for his novel. But as we talk to him, we discover that, on the one hand, his main character has nothing to do, and, on the other, there are a few other "main characters" who are complicating matters far more than is helpful.
Click on the image below to begin our interactive "coaching" session with Bob, or simply click this link: Interactive Coaching Session with Bob.