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Sime~Gen(tm) Inc.

Where Sime and Gen Meet, Creativity Happens

Beginners Workshop: The Character Driven Plot


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Jean Lorrah


Most new writers know what they want to have happen in a story--that is, they have some events that they want to have happen--but they have problems integrating character and conflict. Thus they are likely to begin by simply having something happen for no particular reason except to start the plot.

However, if the protagonist _does something_ that sets the plot in motion, the story is considered more complex and sophisticated (in most readers' eyes "better") than if the antagonist acts first, and the protagonist only reacts. Disaster stories are not considered complex or sophisticated because nothing the protagonist does tempts or instigates the hurricane to come, the volcano to blow, the earthquake to happen. The protagonist can only react after the fact, no matter how heroically.

If the protagonist sets out to do something for himself, his family, his friends, or his community, and whatever he does causes the antagonist to decide to attack the protagonsit or the community, the story is considered "better." The more integrated the protagonist's action and the antagonist's response, the better. It's often only tenuously associated in children's stories--Dorothy only wants to save her dog and see a better world than her dustbowl farm. Somehow, her wish comes true--but it is sheer accident that her house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, causing the Wicked Witch of the West to become her enemy.

But the Little Mermaid (original or Disney version) brings all her troubles on herself by literally loving out of her element. The so-called wicked witch in _that_ story merely informs her of the price she must pay--symbolic prices of her voice (language--she is going into a country where she does not know the language, and pain when she walks--she insists on attempting to do something she was never designed for). But this witch is not an antagonist--she only provides information which allows the Little Mermaid to make her choice. It is a "better" story because the cause of her problems and the driving force of the plot is _her own desires and actions_, nothing else. Of course the 19th and the 20th centuries have different views of the possibility of successfully loving outside one's natural environment, hence the two different endings, but in either version this story is an excellent example of a protagonist-driven plot.

Jean Lorrah











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