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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XXIV

Plot flows from character.

When I’m writing a novel I need a theme. That is the main thing. Without the theme nothing can happen. And after the theme I need at least one character, or an idea for at least one character.

And when he or she is realised, at least in part, I need a minimum of one further character.

Only then does plot enter into the reckoning. Oh, there may have been some idea of plot before this stage, some isolated or associated glimmerings, but that’s all. Nothing was set in stone.

Ideally, I need a couple of strongly drawn characters who relate to each other – their relationship can be sympathetic or antipathetic -and who don’t have to semaphore their intentions to each other through the medium of me.

These characters, or one or the other of them, are going to be faced with a crisis or an environment which will put them under pressure. The twists and turns of plot will be dictated by how these characters respond to that pressure. Faced with the destruction of her home by fire and the loss of her loved ones, will my heroine have a mental breakdown or begin immediately rebuilding her life? Other alternatives may present themselves, but whatever the outcome is (in terms of plot) will depend, more than anything else, on her character.

Once the character or characters begin to work, once I feel they are viable creations, or that they have the possibility of becoming so, I write down what I know about them.

I don’t write everything down, but I give them an age, a note or two about their physical appearance, their profession, the ages of children and any other details I consider essential. All of this in brief notation only. My intention is not to create a document. My notes on each character rarely fill more than half a sheet of A4.

We spoke before about describing character. It has a place. But the most important method of adding to character in narrative fiction is by showing the character in action.

3 Responses to “Learning to Write XXIV”

  1. That’s good. Very good. Concrete advice. I’ll use that and become a better writer. Thank you.

    jb says: Hi Bill. You’re already a good writer. I was going to say, if you get too much better we’ll have to reorder the universe. But we should be OK if you just do it incrementally.

  2. ArtsWom says:

    I only just discovered this blog and felt I had to write about it in mine. I have taken creative writing classes before but I’m impressed with how you get your lesson across without burying the message under pretentious language and fanciful techniques. Read my article here:

    jb says: Thanks, AW. You’re very kind.

  3. john baker says:

    [Unfortunately, ArtsWom was not around to cover the previous XXIII tutorials in John Baker’s effortlessly engrossing “Learning to Write” series. However, that is no excuse to ignore the blog that offers more, for free, than months of creative writing classes. The writer’s most recent lesson teaches us how successfully integrating theme, character and plot will help to create a far more believable and three-dimensional character, defined more effectively by their actions than by lengthy descriptions. Baker passes on his expertise in such a casual manner that it barely feels like you’re learning – he honestly makes it sound so simple.]