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Fiction: Character and Plot

"Hemingway's line was that everything changes as it moves; and that that is what makes the movement that makes the story. Once you let a character speak or act you now know that he acts this way and no other. You dwell on why this is so and you move forward to the next page. This is my method. I'm not interested in formulating a plot to which characters are added like ribbons on a prize cow. The character is the key and when he does something which is new, something you didn't know about or expect, then the story percolates. If I knew, at the beginning, how the book was going to end, I would probably never finish."—William Kennedy

"Character is destiny."—Heracleitus

At the center of a story is a character weighing and navigating his or her desire. Inner forces tug and pull, and a want or need propels the character out into the world. The course of a story should be determined by what actions your character might plausibly take to fulfill that desire. He is confronted with a series of obstacles that prevent him from achieving that desire, and at these "crossroads" your character must make choices about how to handle them. What choice the character makes is determined by his personality. In the most interesting stories, the obstacles test the character's flaws. The outcome of the story cannot be determined by luck or fate. If your character is fighting to stay alive on a raft in a storm, you don't want him to be saved by the hand of God coming down and making the weather peaceful again. A much more interesting and satisfying story to read would be where your character is forced to overcome his weakness and lack of knowledge about boats to steer the raft to safety.

The exercise for this lesson is to create a character and give him or her an obstacle to overcome. Start by asking yourself: "What does my character want?" Answer this question by thinking of something extremely important to your character, so important that she would do almost anything to get it, so important that it's necessary to her survival (this can be survival in a broad sense, in terms of fulfilling what she needs to do in her life). Try to also think of something concrete and specific as opposed to abstract—instead of making your character desire to control her overeating through willpower, make her instead desire to fit into a certain pair of pants. Think about how inner conflicts manifest themselves in the actual world. Once you know what your character wants, throw a series of obstacles in her way. Don't try to control the movement of the story; instead, see if your character will tell you where she wants to go. Follow her lead.

Once you complete this exercise, you can get a critique from a writing teacher.

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