Plot and characterization: Making them work together

Before I leave off the idea of great characters being characters you can argue about, I need to touch on the role plot can play in making a character one people can genuinely discuss.

I wrote a while back about internal conflict and Greek tragedy, and how true tragedy comes about when a character is pulled in different directions by two conflicting virtues or value systems. No matter what he or she does, something revered or some person is wronged.

This kind of dilemma is a great way to incorporate plot as a device to create characters people can have honest conversations about, conversations that lead to self-discovery. (I’m an academic in a lot of ways, so these kinds of discussions are like gold for me.)

An example from reviews (Spoiler Alert!)

In one of my novels, “The Crimson League,” I have a character named Menikas. He has a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation of sorts at one point: he can restrain a subordinate from rushing off to try to save some friends in mortal danger–a scenario that will likely get her killed too–or he can let her go and hope she succeeds. When he stops her, it’s a matter of opinion whether you think he made the right call: was the case desperate enough to justify his intervention? I’ve been so, so shocked to see the varied responses to Menikas from book reviews. Here’s one take:

“I think the main reason that I don’t like him is that he is too focused on his job, and while that is beneficial it still causes problems within his group. Had he been more lenient in his leadership I think the major rift that forms could have been prevented.”

Here’s a completely different point of view from a different reviewer:

“Menikas always tried to do what was right, and not just for himself. He saved Kora’s life, but she didn’t appreciate it and refused to make peace with him. I’m confident that if I had been in the same situation, I’d have done the same thing Menikas did.”

Unintentionally on my part, the plot puts Menikas in a classic “tragic hero” situation; this automatically opens his response to that situation up for debate. What surprised me was that readers might take his side, because I didn’t myself. I never considered they might. I get too emotionally involved in what is going on in the story at the time to feel he did the right thing…. but the reviewer who agrees with his choice makes a very, very sound argument for it, one I can’t flaw.

Anyway, my overall point: use plot to assist characterization. When your characters are forced to choose between two evils or two mutually exclusive goods, then automatically, that character gains depths. You and your readers will have emotional responses as strong as any the characters do, and be drawn in.

Of course, this is not the only way to lend your characters depth: not by any means. It’s just something that I know I’ve done, so I wanted to share it as a possibility, maybe to spur some thought.

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8 responses to “Plot and characterization: Making them work together

  1. An author forcing a character to choose between two mutually exclusive options, both of which have good AND not-so-good aspects, is a particular favorite of mine to see in a novel. That was the case with Menikas and the options he was presented with.

    You think about how the story would have gone if Menikas had not stopped Kora. How hard would readers have had to work to suspend their disbelief if Kora had somehow escaped the situation with her life and prevented the deaths of her friends? While you certainly could have written the story that way, it wouldn’t have been consistent with what was known and understood about the bad guys. It was my feeling that Menikas understood the depth of the threat that Kora would have faced better than Kora did, and he acted on his knowledge to do the best he could to save as many of the League that he thought was possible in the situation–namely, Kora.

    I ended up liking the character of Menikas better than any other character in the story, because he was forced to choose in basically a fraction of a second between two impossible choices but he made the best decision he could and took responsibility for his choice.

    • thanks for the comment! wow, that’s really cool to hear you say because Menikas was never a particular favorite of mine, like I said. I totally agree, I love to see characters having to choose between what they consider the lesser of two evils. It just rings very true in the world we live in.

  2. Hi Victoria – Thanks for stopping by my blog and giving me another window into the Plot vs Character equation. I have a work in progress that is ripe for revision and will look for opportunity to leverage more tension in the story.

  3. I’m REALLY glad you posted that “Spoiler Alert” notice. I literally started The Crimson League just last night. I’ll have to come back at another time to read this post.

  4. Pingback: Character-Driven: how characters determine your plot | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  5. Pingback: Plot and characterization: Making them work together | Tea Talks

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