I’m a bit of a planner when it comes to writing. I need a framework, something to help keep my eye on the end game. Before I begin any story or chapter it has to be planned in as much detail as possible. In the past, most of my planning focused on plot. Moving the story from A to B. While I include character development in this, it never had much of a focal point.
The more I write, the more my appreciation for the significance of characterisation grows. A natural inclusion it seems I’ve taken when it comes to planning is the inclusion of character plots.
Like plotting out a story using events, instead, I map out the story using my characters’ emotional journey, their thoughts, their desires, as those events unfold.
Emotion is so important in our lives, and in our characters lives too. Playwright Moses Malevinsky said in The Science of Playwrighting:
“Emotion, or the elements in or of an emotion, constitute the basic things in life. Emotion is life. Life is emotion. Therefore emotion is drama. Drama is emotion.”
To echo that point, another fantastic playwright, Lajos Egri, said, “emotion, to be sure, is as necessary to a [story] as barking to a dog.”
Why do I think this emotional journey is so important? Let’s look at the potential reaction to a simple email.
As writers, we send our work off to publishers in the hope of making some cashish, reaching new readers, enriching peoples’ lives with our words. When we see the response email from a publisher in our inbox our hearts begin to flutter. Is it good news or bad? You open the email, skim the words, seeking the ones you want, the ones that will tell you everything you need to know. ‘Congratulations’ or the dreaded ‘unfortunately’.
In that brief moment, we are filled with hope and in the fleeting seconds after we’re either dejected or elated. Emotions swing violently to either end of the spectrum. All from one little email.
What’s the benefit?
Put yourself in your character’s shoes. Think of all of the massive, life-changing events you drag them through. How would it feel to be the one being dragged along? The highs, the lows, the anxieties, the uncertainties, the pressure to perform and succeed. I do not doubt your characters will go through some intense shit in your stories. Plotting their emotional journeys may help you get to grips with each and every swing of emotion.
It can help make characters and the events that happen to them more believable. If a character kills someone for the first time, that’s a pretty massive thing to do. Playing God. Snuffing out the light of life. To really get at the heart of what your character is thinking and feeling, plotting out that emotional journey is going to help you achieve that.
It also serves as a checks and balance in case any emotional reactions that you’d expect a character to go through do not get addressed, or aren’t properly addressed. No stone is left unturned. You’re not chancing things, you’re thinking things through in excellent detail. All of this is only going to benefit both your story and your characters.
How do you go about it?
I speak entirely from personal experience. What works for me may not work for you. The trick is trial and error: try something, see if it works, try something else… and so on, until you hit your winning formula.
I always begin with planning the story. In my mind, I need to know what’s going to happen and where I’m going. Once I know the key events, I turn to my characters, embed myself in their minds and walk the path I’ve constructed for them. I jot down any little feelings that spring to mind as I progress through the plot.
These emotional reactions, in turn, shape the plot. The characters we create are full of surprises. As they come to life with their own thoughts and feelings, they manipulate the flow of the story as it unfolds, meaning you’re not tying yourself up in knots when inconsistencies arise between plot and character. The two are very much linked and determine the fate of each other.
So in short, a character plot is a useful exercise because:
- In plotting the emotional turmoil of your character, you’re leaving no stone unturned, making for more believable, empathetic characters.
- Mapping out both the story and the character’s emotional journey can help shape both, which will lead to a more engaging and less disjointed story.
- It gives more structure to your story. Knowing how to get from A to B is one thing, knowing how your character feels about it is another. Your overall plot and characterisation will be stronger as a whole.
Give it a go and see what you think. I’d love to hear your views!
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