Plotting a Story 101: Strengthen Your Plot with the Protagonist
October 9, 2019
Good morning writers! Indigo Typewriter is back this fine Wednesday, and today we’re looking into plotting a story using your protagonist.
Here’s the deal: I struggle with plotting. Like, really struggle. Not because I don’t have at least a vague idea of where I’m going and what I want to happen along the way, but because I’m a panster. I like to go where the book takes me and not plot too far in advance.
In high school, I started writing a book. I finished it the summer between my first and second years in college. I didn’t have a plan along the way and just let the writing take me where it wanted to go. The book turned out great. It was developed. It was well-received by my first readers (*cough* thanks mom! thanks babe! *cough*).
But it was 900 pages long.
The book had other problems, too. Plot-holes. Underdeveloped supporting characters. Exhaustive psychological exploration of the protagonists. A villain with no reasoning behind his actions. Plausibility problems to the core. Multiple climaxes (seriously, how does that even happen?!). And a host of other issues.
So, if you write by the seat of your pants, don’t like plotting, or just need a couple ideas to really take your plot to the next level, this series is for you. For the next several Wednesdays, you’ll get a different strategy for helping you craft the best plot for your novel.
This week, we’re talking about using your protagonist to find your novel’s plot.
Plotting Strategy #1: Look at the protagonist’s past
When I hit writing rock bottom, I realized deep rewrites were necessary to fix the plot problems with my book. My knee-jerk reaction? Running away from plot work to spend time in my characters’ heads.
Counterintuitive as this was, it turned out to be incredibly fortunate.
My book-in-progress has two protagonists. I know them very well, because they came to me almost fully-formed in high school, and I’ve been writing their story off and on again ever since.
But as I really started looking at the male protagonist’s past, I realized that we were too far along in his development the first time around. I didn’t want to tell the reader the story of his fall from grace, I wanted the reader to live it. Instantly, the plot shifted.
Another character in my book has a story to tell, though he’s not one of the main protagonists. His story was one I didn’t fully develop in the first go-round because of the dark subject matter. I knew it was a part of his story, but I wasn’t willing to wade through his past of abuse and really look at how it formed him. But when I bucked up my courage to delve into those dark places, this character showed me that he had been fundamentally formed by bondage to his past. For better or worse, he would have to address it. Suddenly, I had a subplot.
Sometimes, all you need for a plotting framework is to look at your characters. What happened in their past, good or bad, that made them who they are today? Why were those events so impactful? What do they respond to in situations or other characters that makes them move along their character arc? Do they have to change to get where you want them to be, or is it simply a matter of testing and strengthening their resolve, values, and/or principles? What part of their whole story do you want to tell?
Plotting Strategy #2: Look at your protagonist’s personality/makeup
One of the easiest ways to get the basis for a detailed plot is to look at your character’s biggest fears and flaws. We talked about how this is important for your character development process in this post, but it’s also really useful for plotting.
If you know your character’s biggest fear, you can use it to create a black moment. Often, though not always, the black moment is the climax of the story.
So, what is a black moment? It’s basically where the protagonist’s inner conflicts come to a head. If this coincides with the external conflicts doing the same, it makes for the perfect climax for your novel.
Take a look at your character’s biggest fear, the thing they dread the most, the catastrophe they’ll avoid at all costs. Now make it happen. Put them smack in the middle of that humiliating situation, right in front of that confirmation that they’re unloved, facing down that failure, that loss, that one irreparable mistake, the thing that will make them give up the ghost and quit.
Pair that disaster up with your external conflicts, and you’ve got your climax.
Now let’s rewind. You’ve used your character’s biggest fear, but we need to go back and look at their flaws.
As it is, in the above situation, your character is going to fail. The worst has happened and they’re finished. Which is why you have to use their flaws along the way. (Even if you plan on your character failing in the climax, either for series purposes or just because you have a cruel streak––you sadist, you––read on! This is still a necessary step.)
By taking your character’s flaws and making them deal with those flaws along the way, you create a well of strength for your character to draw on. Or, more accurately, you reveal the well of strength they already possess.
Now, the character will have to expend that strength to battle their flaws. This serves a double purpose: it allows them to test their guns and uses up most of their bullets. By the time reach the climax, they truly don’t know if they can get through the final battle.
That makes the victory even sweeter. They’ve worked for it. They’ve beaten the odds, slain the giant, and claimed the crown. It also makes that victory possible because, let’s face it, the character needed the training of overcoming the worst parts of themselves before they could face down the Boss. It’s unrealistic to expect a person who’s never fought any kind of battle to win the ultimate victory against the ultimate opponent.
Or, if you’re not the generous type, the continuing struggle with flaws makes defeat all the more bitter. They survived all those trials, overcame all those obstacles, but in the end, they just didn’t have the courage to keep going. They weren’t strong enough to push through to the final victory.
Whatever ending you go with, you now have a plotting action plan, a guideline for how to get from Point A to Point B. Take your character’s biggest fear and craft the climax around it. Then take your character’s biggest flaw to create roadblocks. This works great for novels where it’s all about the character’s personal struggles or inner life, but it’s also useful for novels where there’s an external foe and a larger plot. Just match the fears to your antagonist and the flaws to situations and other characters who reveal or agitate them.
What is your character’s biggest fear? How can you craft that into a black moment or climax? If you have an external foe, how do they represent, use, or aggravate that fear?
What about your character’s flaws? How would they create obstacles your character has to overcome along the way?
Plotting Strategy #3: What’s the worst that could happen?
This last strategy is related to the idea of fears and flaws, but it’s different for one essential reason: this time we’re using goals as our plotting base point.
Goals = Plan
Have you ever consciously thought about your character’s goals? I paid little attention to goals until I started creating profiles for my characters. (These, by the way, are great tools when you can’t remember that one extraneous detail you really need right now!) But even if goals aren’t something you actively think about, your character has them. There’s something they really want or need, even if that’s just for things to stay the way they are.
Sometimes goals appear to change. Say your character wants things to stay the way they are––keeping the status quo is their goal. Then something upsets the status quo. Suddenly, their goal is return things to normal.
Maybe to reinstate the norm, the character has to rid the charming, rural town of some antagonistic new group that wants to build an apartment complex right next to the town square. The character’s goal is now to either negotiate with or eradicate these radical urbanizers. To do that, they have to get a particular town council-member on board.
The immediate goal changes multiple times, but the end goal is the same: maintain the status quo. It just has mini goals along the way.
Work backwards from your end goal. The mini goals are your character’s plan to gain victory.
Failed Goals = Plot
Now, at each one of these mini goals, ask yourself this question: what’s the worst that could happen?
This is where your amazing plot twists show up. If you take your character off-course at each stage of their plan, they’ll have to adapt on the fly. All the plotting magic is in the unexpected, agonizing twists you put your characters through.
Keep in mind that the plot twists don’t have to be the character simply failing to achieve their mini-goals. It can be the unexpected arrival of a new character who throws things off. New information could be revealed, such as another character’s true intentions or some underhanded scheme your protagonist was unaware of. Sometimes, the character achieves their goal but doesn’t actually get what they want––the classic “be careful what you wish for” scenario.
Let’s look at a couple examples. Be warned, these contain spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and The Hunger Games.
Example A: Arrival of a New Character
Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (I’m going with the movie adaptation since it gives a clearer example of this plot twist) is attempting to get to Mordor to destroy the ring––his goal. Everything is going, if not swimmingly, at least according to a general plan to follow Gollum to a secret path into the dark land.
Then, Faramir shows up and kidnaps Frodo. Faramir not only delays the hobbit on his journey, but actually takes him backwards. In the process, Faramir forces Frodo to betray Gollum, who had just begun to trust the hobbit. Faramir finally releases Frodo from his custody, but by this point, he’s done irreparable damage to Frodo and Gollum’s tenuous alliance. Gollum is now secretly planning to betray Frodo just as, in his eyes, Frodo betrayed him. The whole plot is altered from that point forward, all because Faramir, with his own goals and motives, arrived on the scene.
Example B: Reveal of New Information
In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker’s goal is to save his wife Padmé from death.
Now, as the audience, we’ve known for a long time that Anakin’s “friend” Chancellor Palpatine is actually a sith lord and, for lack of a more sophisticated term, pure evil. We know that Palpatine has been manipulating Anakin. And, of course, as people who didn’t grow up under rocks, we know that Anakin will become the notorious Darth Vader from the original films by the end of the movie.
Nevertheless, as a plot device, the reveal of Palpatine’s true identity as a sith––and Anakin’s sudden understanding that the Chancellor has manipulated every political move for more than a decade––serves its purpose well. Were we just coming into the franchise with no knowledge of where Anakin would end up, we would be shell-shocked as he is forced into the Dark Side by his love for Padmé. And for those of us who already knew Anakin’s fate, witnessing the full reveal of Palpatine was simultaneously gut-wrenching and incredibly satisfying.
Example C: The Hidden Thorn
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games wants to stay alive––that’s her obvious goal from the beginning of the story. So fear for her own life consumes her at the Reaping, where she could be randomly picked as the next contestant in a fight to the death. But it’s not her name that’s called, it’s her sister’s.
Katniss has escaped death, but at the cost of her sister’s safety. Her only option is to set aside her own need to survive, her goal, and volunteer in her sister’s place.
This single act shapes the whole plot and puts Katniss’s two main goals at odds: to stay alive and to protect her sister.
What is you character’s goal? What’s the worst thing that could happen to prevent them from reaching their goal? Is there another character who could throw a wrench in your protagonist’s plans? New information to reveal to make things go awry at just the wrong moment? A hidden thorn in your character’s goal that will make them regret chasing it?
You might find it tempting to simply pick one of these strategies and ignore the others, but I strongly encourage you to do all three exercises. Thinking through your character’s background, fears and flaws, and goals is an incredibly important part of compelling plotting. Your protagonist will provide you with a wide range of problems to solve and monsters to conquer.