When you think of a story, what comes to mind first? Most likely it is one of two things: some neat twist in the story, or a memorable character. Ideally, that memorable character would be the protagonist or main character of the story. It’s often a character we find interesting, for any number of reasons.
When you sit down to write you usually begin with a neat character you’ve crafted, right? Maybe they are cool and smooth. Maybe they’re goofy and funny, maybe eclectic. Something inspired by a film you’ve seen by Quentin Tarantino, or Wes Anderson, maybe inspired by reading Edgar Allen Poe.
So you sit down with your basic writing know how and do as you’ve been told, make this characters life hell. Put this interesting person in your imagination through interesting and increasingly difficult situations til their innate skills and talent get them out of their situation in Act III.
But, your character is already so smooth, and cool, and bad ass, that they’re coasting through the situations you’re throwing at them. To increase the odds, you start relying on external plot elements to make life tough for the hero. But something still isn’t working, you can feel it, so you start layering on a flaw or two, just to increase the drama.
Maybe this sounds like you, maybe it doesn’t, but what this writer I have illustrated above is battling from if something most writers suffer from, and it is a secret most professional writers who write volumes on being a writer don’t share. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to keep selling you volumes on volumes of how to hold, if they shared the secret sauce.
What is happening is, you are writing your story backwards. When crafting a story, the character doesn’t come first, the plot does.
If you write long enough, you’ll figure this out instinctually through trial and error, but here is a way to consciously approach it, and save yourself many years and rewrites.
All writing has a structure. Interestingly this structure actually expands to other aspects of our lives because it’s tied into how our brains perceive the world and make sense of it. Analyzing and problem solving is the key task of the human brain. When you understand this, you see the symmetry been writing a story or the process for building a blender.
One structure we are very familiar with is the essay, we’ve all had to do them. This will be our Rosetta Stone to the process of writing for fiction.
In a one paragraph essay, we begin with an outline. We introduce the topic, make a statement about the topic (which we call a thesis), share supporting information for why our statement on the topic of correct, and conclude. A larger essay is a variation and expansion on this structure.
Fiction is much the same. Except a fiction story is often a persuasive essay. Our topic is our theme. The opening hook of a story is our thesis. Events in the plot are evidence in support of our thesis or evidence against our thesis (in a novel, our first chapter is our introduction, subsequent chapters are supporting evidence, and so on). The resolution at the end of the story is your conclusion and summation of your theme and the point you want to make: Love conquers all; humans are simply animals posing as civilized beings; free will is essential for every human being; authoritarianism is the only solution to combat the Ills of society.
Once you have an idea of the kind of story you want to tell, you introduce a main character that provides the most conflict and is the most suitable vehicle for your theme.
Let’s say you truly believe the majority of people are too stupid to function on their own. You believe they need strong leadership to prevent violence, poverty, and any other social issues you have a problem with. You could approach this one of two ways: an individualist who suffers by not confirming to an idealistic authoritarian society, or an authoritarian who encounters adversity in a society full of suffering individualists. But you would not accomplish much if your main character was a happy authoritarian in a idealistic authoritarian society. He would not run into many issues and you would not be able to properly explore the concept of authoritarianism or it’s benefits.
It is much easier to determine what statements you want to make about a topic, then crafting conflict from them by creating scenes and inserting a protagonist who is polar opposite to that theme (or a fish out of water in ACT II) and then begin fleshing them out with personality traits instead of crafting an interesting character and all their ticks and habits, and trying to find situations that have enough conflict and adversity to be interesting.
With the former, you are creating a plot where the character responds to the events and drives the story.
In the latter, you’re developing a plot that responds to the character. This is where we run into the problem of plot driving stories and not characters decisions driving stories. We end up with scenes that have arbitrary, illogical, and over the top stacking of adversity to give a direction-less character enough conflict to be interesting.