Growing Plot From Character

Sunday, October 28

Once I know my character’s emotional landscape, it’s time to see how to shape that into an arc that will work with the story idea. How can I turn all that I’ve learned about my protagonist into the beginnings of a story?

In order to understand what actions will effect a transformation in your character, there are a few things one needs to know. Debra Dixon addresses this brilliantly with her concept of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and if you haven’t read the book, I highly, highly recommend it. She talks at length about needing to have both an external GMC (plot) and internal GMC (internal growth arc).

Goal – What your character wants.
Motivation – Why do they want it? Why are they pursuing this goal?
Conflict – What is standing in their way.

Ideally you should be able to answer those questions on an external and internal level for your character.

One of the things I constantly stumble over is giving my protagonists an actual, bona fide goal. It takes me a while to figure out what they want, and sometimes I realize they don’t actually want anything. Or at least anything that they could articulate to themselves or anyone else.

However, it finally occurred to me that sometimes simply allowing oneself to want something can be a dramatic act all its own. In fact, I wonder if that’s one of the reasons I write kids books, because they are immersed in learning they have the right and the power and eventually the responsibility to act, not just observe or get carried along. Maybe that thematic issue kind of clusters around kids books. Or maybe that’s just one of my personal themes. Not quite sure about that…

Anywho, sometimes I have more luck by asking myself what my characters needs or longs for. Those words seem less self aware than goal, and especially with a younger protagonist, having an unarticulated need seems a more realistic way to drive their actions. At least initially.

Often I will start with just the germ of an idea: (I’m using one of my middle grade novels instead of Grave Mercy so I don’t risk spoilers for anyone.) What if a girl could see curses and black magic on artifacts in a museum that no one else could see? AFter I’ve rooted  around in her psyche using the questions from the last post, then I massage and poke and scratch my head until I have at least some semblance of GMC. For Theodosia, it was pretty easy.

Goal: To neutralize black magic and curses before they harmed anyone
Motivation: Because it was nasty, vile stuff that could cause great harm to those she loved; plus she was the only one who could see it, so the responsibility landed in her lap.
Conflict: She was only a child, with few resources; no one would believe her if she tried to explain; and certain bad guys wanted to let use that magic for their own gains.

Knowing that allowed me to begin to design the framework of the structure of the novel; what the inciting incident would be, what the turning points might look like, how the conflict and tension would rise.

But that was only the externals. To give the novel depth, I had to find a way to put what I knew about Theodosia emotionally onto the page. These physical events had to force her to some new understanding or awareness on her journey to becoming an adult.

I knew that one of the things that Theodosia hungered for was her parent’s attention as she was often overlooked. (Luckily, there was a fairly hands-off child rearing philosophy in 1907, so her parents didn’t appear to be horrid people.) She also wanted their professional respect, perhaps simply an extension of the above, since her parents were consumed by their professions, she felt that would be the best way to gain their attention, with her professional expertise.

For me to be able to develop the internal GMC, I often have to look to my character’s wounds or scars; what is lacking in their life, what hole are they trying to plug up, for those are often what drive our actions. So the internal GMC might look something like this (and notice how I word them differently so they make sense to me):

Goal (Emotional need/longing/desire): To be reassured that her parents really do care about her.
Motivation (Why she has that longing/Emotional Wound): Emotionally abandoned by her parents
Conflict (What prevents her forward growth): Parent’s preoccupation with selves, lack of child-centric perspective

Dixon has designed a nifty little GMC table that looks a lot like a tic-tac-toe square and goes something like this:

And then I try to fill in those blanks for my character.

A couple of additional things: Goals can be to NOT want something, to NOT move, or NOT go to a new school. They can also change over the course of a book as they character grows or acquires new knowledge.

Once I have that grid filled out, I try to brainstorm five or six concrete steps the protagonist will have to take to move toward achieving those goals. Then that pre-writing step is completed.


Once I have that nailed down, it’s time to sort of kick the tires of the whole thing and see if it is big enough, with enough inherent conflict, to sustain the sort of novel I’m hoping to write. So then I ask these questions:

Now that you have a handle on the character’s goal, is there a way to make this matter even more? Can I think of a way to raise the stakes so it is even more important for the character?

Why can’t the character have/achieve what she thinks she wants? Who or what is standing in her way?

Why can’t the character have/achieve what she really wants? Who or what is standing in her way?

How does this person or thing block or push against the character?

How could they make things even worse for the character?

What’s the worst possible moment for things to get worse?

What will cause the character physical and/or emotional hardship?

Secondary characters: Can I think of secondary characters who will complicate things or create more friction for the protagonist? Can be friendly or antagonistic.

What about Setting? Is there someplace I can set the story (world, location) that would resonate with my themes or add inherent conflict to the story?

Then once I have all that information, I begin looking at structure–which I will tackle in a separate post. (Have I mentioned I do a ton of pre-writing? <g>)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah G October 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm

This post is fabulous. It’s several sessions of fiction writing class summed up in one snappy blog post! Makes me want to get back into writing like I did before I had SO MANY little kids to wrangle. :)


Robin October 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Well, that’s when I finally got back into writing, Sarah, when I was being a stay-at-home mom. I used their nap time, while they were playing at the park, basically squeezed in every free moment I could. But I only had two, and it sounds like you might have quite a few more than that!

But never say never!

(And glad you found the post helpful!)


Sarah G October 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm

The joke at my house is given the extremely strong personalities bumping up against one another, the perceived number of kids is up around a dozen…at least! In reality, there are only three. Thanks for replying! I’m going to read through your other NaNoWriMo posts as I ignore the charming sibling squabble going on in the background. 😉


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