Maybe it’s not your plot

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Maybe It’s Not Your Plot

Plot is the number one thing novelists and would-be novelists tend to struggle with, and it’s what people come to us for help with, day after day.

But eight times out of ten, as I see it, that’s not really the problem at all. The problem is that these writers don’t understand their protagonist’s character arc.

Because while a plot full of trouble, twists, suspense, and reveals will keep the reader turning the pages, in the end, it’s not the external events of the story that make a novel feel meaningful—it’s the internal journey that the protagonist has made along the way.

I see myself in this. Yes, I’m looking into a definite mirror there. It took me quite a long time to think about character arcs, and I too would have said the plot was the problem.

I still say plotting is hard — hey, plotting is genuinely hard — but now I think I’m a lot quicker to segue from there to thinking about character arcs in addition to plot. That’s something my agent taught me to do, I think, simply by talking about character arcs in her (extensive) editorial notes. Eventually I started to think about that myself.

I mean, not in great detail. This is similar to not sitting down and writing out the character’s backstory and history in excruciating detail, as I understand some writers do. I definitely don’t sit down and write out the character arc in explicit detail. But I do pause to consider the protagonist’s character arc in, I don’t know, three to five words or whatever, just as I have a basic idea of what the protagonist’s backstory feels like.

I remember, or I think I remember, a suggestion that Oressa might be too competent to begin with in The Mountain of Kept Memory, and therefore might have too little room to grow during the course of the story. I wasn’t going to make her less competent, but I believe that’s when I explicitly defined her character arc as hiding –> stepping into the open. Just a few words, but that’s what I meant her arc to be, and I think it worked quite well.

Every now and then, I take a stab at listing out my books in order of my personal preference. (Twice someone has asked me, so I’ve tried to do it.) The order changes continually, but Mountain is generally pretty near the top. Depending on the day you asked me, it might be my second-favorite after Tuyo/Tarashana.

Back to the actual topic:

[Character arc is] not as obvious as the events of the plot. If someone challenged you to sum up the character arc of a book you recently read and loved, you probably couldn’t do it. But long after you’ve forgotten the events of the plot, you’ll remember how that book made you feel—and whatever strong emotions that story evoked, I can virtually guarantee you, were an effect of its character arc.

That’s kind of an interesting challenge. I think I generally COULD sum up the character arc of the protagonist for many or all of the books I recently read and loved. I’m thinking of The Hands of the Emperor here. Goddard pretty much whaps the reader over the head with that character arc. Actually, Cliopher’s arc is similar to Oressa’s, now that I think of it, except more drawn out, more extensive — just a lot more overall — and playing out against a very different family dynamic. But I could also summarize the character arcs for, I don’t know, Sword Dance, which is the book I’m reading right now. I don’t have to actually finish the third book to lay out the basic character arcs for the two protagonists. Being confident I know where the third book is heading is what makes it comfortable and inviting for me to pick up when I’m not interested in high-tension books right now.

But also this:

Character arc is often the key to the other big thing writers tend to struggle with, which is motivation. Because when the internal journey your protagonist takes in the course of their story aligns clearly with some deep personal truth of your own, that’s where the lights really come on with a novel. Which is to say, that’s when writing it begins to feel urgent and meaningful. Because that’s when you go beyond simply telling a story to sharing real truths of your own life, the truths of your heart.

Character arc is the limiting factor—the one that will turn your maze, with all those possible dead ends, into a labyrinth, which only leads just one place: To the heart of the story.

I feel like that’s true. I also feel like I need to think about that for a bit.

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3 thoughts on “Maybe it’s not your plot”

  1. This is really helpful. I’ve tried FF a couple times and got blocked after two chapters. Thinking by character instead of plot … I might get somewhere

  2. What an excellent, insightful post. The bit about aligning character arcs with your own truth is pretty powerful.

    Thinking about your books, and books like Hands of the Emperor, I would say that relationship arcs are also pretty key. I guess they count as part of a character arc: who are we if we aren’t in relationships with those around us?

  3. What a timely article! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I think that’s my main struggle right now: defining character arcs and bringing the plot in line with them.

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