Look…you know I’m a character-centric guy. You know anything I write starts (and ends) with the characters, and the plot is just the Charlie-Brown-pine on which I hang the lights and ornaments and decorations that make it an actual Christmas tree. You know because, well, I’ve talked about it often enough…
So, for me, the what of my stories isn’t some big plot point, some stand-alone crisis & climax & resolution…it’s the story of the protagonist(s), and how they deal with with those plot points. I know it sounds semantic, but I can assure you that it’s not. It most assuredly is not — it is a very real difference in emphasis, and in execution.
Let me put it like this: as much as I love Star Wars, why did I hate The Force Awakens? Because the characters — with the exception of Finn & BB8 — were forgettable, 2-dimensional cookie cutters that meant not one damned thing to me. There is no bigger Mary Sue in the damned universe than Rey…and don’t even get me started on the uselessness that is/was Kylo Ren. Quite simply, the characters in that movie were there simply to serve the plot; they had no meaning and no life in and of themselves.
Contrast that with Rogue One. I bought into Rogue One…I bought all the way in. The characters in that movie existed, they meant something. They had more depth, and more reality, than the entire cast of TFA put together. Jyn and Cassian were, quite simply, more believable — more important — than Rey and Poe.
And that makes all the difference.
So, when I plan and design the what of a story, it is not a plot into which I insert my characters. Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact: it comes from the characters themselves.
I’ve mentioned before the rather extensive background work I do before I ever start writing a story. Part of that is just to help me fill in holes and answer questions…but just part. No, the majority of that comes because I need to think and live — I need to experience — my characters’ reality before I truly know where things are going. I need, when you get right down to it, to let them talk to me.
A real world example:
The story that evolved and grew into Wrath & Tears and Silence (and the planned third story, tentatively titled The Flicker of Ghosts) started life simply as a planned series of short stories I nicknamed Project Dock Rat. It was anticipated to be nothing more than the serial adventures of a homeless kid, scraping by as a thief with the help of his best friend.
There was nothing in the original conception about society’s sins, nor the exploitation and violence and ruthlessness that are so a part of the real world. There was, equally, nothing about suicide, or suffering, or the despair of the hopeless.
Then I thought and worked through the two main characters (a third got axed/changed…long story, there), the two who became Connor and Oz.
I had no idea when I originally dreamed up the idea that the protagonist would come to be a reflection of my own survivor’s guilt, nor that his best friend would come to represent those I’ve lost to suicide. I had no idea the story would come to mean something very personal to me.
But it did.
It became not the “adventures of a homeless kid,” but rather the story of Connor’s attempt to save his own soul…and Oz’s failure to do the same thing.
THAT is the what of a story, to me: the reality and evolution of characters that matter.