On Plot And Character (And Giving Writing Advice At The End Of The World)


Writing advice is bullshit on a good day. Though as I’m wont to note, bullshit fertilizes, and so we continue to share it and give it with the notion that maybe a scattering of it over your garden will help your story-plants grow. Maybe it won’t. And that’s okay, too. But here at the end of the world (okay, not really the end of the world I don’t think, I’m probably just being a little dramatic), it feels somehow fruitless to even talk about this stuff. Like we’re just polishing silver in a housefire, or jerking off during a hurricane. Stop jerking off. There’s a hurricane. Evacuate, for shit’s sake.

No, no, I said evacuate.

Anyway.

Still, this stuff is on my mind as I ramp up to write a new story (cough cough, the Wanderers sequel), and the other day on Twitter there’d been some discussion — started by agent Dongwon Song — about character taking precedence over plot, or leading into plot, or what have you. And I’ve said as much myself, that for me, plot is Soylent Green: it’s made of people. Characters do shit and say shit, and they do so in pursuit of solving problems, chasing desires, and escaping fears. As they do this, they create plot. It’s watching an ant colony forming — they’re making art, chewing those tunnels. Characters are doing that. But of course, lots of folks also write differently and consider plot considerations first, and then slot in characters who fit that plot, and that’s fine, too. It’s all fine. The only bad way to write is a way that stops you from writing and readers from reading it. That’s it.

I do want to talk about a practical example of this, though, as it’s fresh on my mind (despite the END OF THE WORLDSYNESS going on all around us right now).

Anybody watch the show Sex Education on Netflix?

Good show. Walks that line between sweet and sharp, between funny and sad, between drama and melodrama. The first season I liked a lot more than the second, though; the second season is more uneven, wobbling around unsteadily between character arcs and motivations, and there’s a keen example of this at the end of the second season.

This will necessitate spoilers.

Small spoilers. Mild. I’ll give no details but… spoilers are spoilers.

So avoid if you gotta.

ANYWAY.

Here goes.

Last scene in the season finale involves a character leaving their phone behind, and on this phone is a voicemail we want them to hear, and then another character intervenes — they open the phone, listen to the voicemail, and erase it.

Simple enough.

Problem:

The character who left behind the phone is a teenager. Teenagers are maybe forgetful, but they’re also critically married to their phones (as are we proper adults), and this teenager in particular is sharp, savvy, and naturally suspicious of like, literally everyone. And in the first season we saw a character lose their phone and see the result of that. So, leaving a phone behind callously is strange. The character isn’t just stepping outside for a cigarette — they’re “walking into town.” At night. It’s a good distance. And they don’t take their phone.

Additional problems ensue when you realize you can’t just open someone’s phone, you have to know their passcode, but that’s somewhat more adjacent to the point I’m trying to make, which is:

The episode is very concerned about its PLOT and not very concerned about its CHARACTERS. It so badly wants us to feel this kind of (melo)dramatic tension that it does one of its own characters dirty — it sells out what we know of them, betraying who they are, for the purposes of a cheap, operatic thrill. Some won’t be rankled by this, though I was, and my wife was like WTF, too — it’s not that this choice was wrong, but I felt it. And I hate whenever I’m watching or reading something and one of the characters is suddenly acting very unlike themselves, and it feels like the storyteller is shaving off their square corners so they’ll fit into the circle hole socket that the plot requires. Which for me, isn’t ideal storytelling. It’s letting the frame be more than just a guide, but rather, an exoskeleton bolted to the narrative. It’s doubly annoying when this character blip could’ve been easily solved — often, you only need a few shifts to such a scene to still get your desired plot outcome while not simultaneously betraying the character.

So, to me, that’s the lesson — let my characters drive the story. And if there’s something I feel is really vital, plot-wise, then those plot bits must still be shaped like the character, and not force the characters to be shaped like the plot. Or something.

Who knows. Again, does any of this even matter? Is this just deck chairs on the Titanic? Maybe. My kid started fourth grade today (virtually) and it’s like, they want to teach him normal Fourth Grade things and a wild-eyed part of me wants to jump in, NO YOU NEED TO TEACH HIM HOW TO SURVIVE THE APOCALYPSE, WHO GIVES A SHINY FUCK ABOUT VERB TENSES WHEN HE NEEDS TO KNOW HOW TO SPEAR A MUTATED FIRE BOAR COMING OVER THE RIDGE FROM THE RUINS OF OLD SCRANTONIA. It’s hard to know what we need to know going forward, and what will matter. But I know stories still matter, and how we tell them matters, and letting our characters be themselves is a good way to demonstrate how to maybe also be ourselves off the page, too. As writers and as people. And as mutated fireboar hunters in the Year 2030.

OKAY BYE.


13 responses to “On Plot And Character (And Giving Writing Advice At The End Of The World)”

  1. Good thoughts. I feel much the same way. My characters are the drivers of the story. And I get annoyed or worse when watching/reading and that character break for the sake of plot happens.

    As for the firebears, if they are coming from anywhere, it will be Scrantonia. I know. I grew up there.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! All of these things! I’m not a writer but I hate it when the characters do something “wrong.” Drives me crazy!

  3. Oh. Ouch. I’m one of those online public school teachers. Yes. Don’t betray the kids or characters. I’m training my Sophomores to help their neighbors and themselves cross rivers of lava in order to get to the polling stations, and my seniors to make homemade explosives to blow the doors off the prisons where we’re being held. It’s a start.

  4. This reminder is much needed today! Too easy to slip into betrayal of a character to shove them into whatever plot turn seems necessary, but the result is clunky, and obvious, and doesn’t end up working anyway.
    What’s this about mutated fire boars? Is that what September 2020 is for this funked-up year?
    Perfect.

  5. I’ve never thought about this as much as an author rather than as a viewer, and there is nothing that I feel more betrayed more by in storytelling that when a character that I’ve come to know does something they would never be doing because DRAMA.

    It automatically makes me lose interest in the plot, and I’ve stopped watching quite a few shows because of that. Smart, assertive women turn into insecure jealous screaming types, loyal people cheat, honest ones lie,.. just because writers are too lazy to find a way to tell a compelling story without fallinf into those tropey devices.

    Probably thats why as a writer I keep asking myself over and over again if there is something else my characters could be doing to get out of all the hellish stuff I throw at them, They are flawed, yes, but also consistent, and definitely smarter than I am. What a curse.

  6. Thanks for the advice as always Chuck. To anyone reading this comment now – did you participate in Chuck’s writing prompts throughout the years? I remember doing that and I just wanted to know how you’re doing. Have you written a book or any more stories? I hope you are doing well.

  7. When this happens in novels, movies, TV shows, books, graphic novels etc. it always feels like a gut punch and this type of type of Plot First thinking has me turning off more TV shows and never returning to them than anything else. It’s happened a lot more often lately actually but maybe that’s because I’m watching as much TV as possible before fireboar season.

  8. “No, no, I said evacuate.” LOL

    I always feel so validated when another writer says it’s the characters. I wouldn’t bother writing at all if I didn’t love my characters. Why wouldn’t I let them shape the story?

  9. Chuck, I like your style. My kids are in their early 20s navigating grad school and early professional life. One’s an engineer, the other is a neuroscientist who knows how to build shit as well as hot wire mice. I totally get wanting 4th grade to teach your kid about how to survive the apocalypse but, really, if they see the world clearly, they won’t be fooled into thinking the shiny red apple tastes good but be looking for the razor blade. You already got that for them. Maybe verb tenses will be useful again someday. You never know.

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