If not plot, then what?

Following on from a previous blog post where I jotted down my thoughts on plot versus characterisation, I noted that characterisation has to work far harder in the literary medium than it does in the film. That said, I didn’t explore the hows, wheres, whats, whens and, in particular, the whos of characterisation. Why? Truth be told, it’s because I don’t know the answer. It’s a journey I’m taking, a skill I’m learning, and it remains to be seen whether or not I’m getting any closer to the writer’s holy grail of crafting a believable and relatable protagonist.

What I can do in the meantime is suggest what I think makes a good protagonist. Here lies the disclaimer: what I’m about to say isn’t gospel—in fact it’s as far from it as it can possibly be. It’s amateurish guesswork at best. But that’s not say it’s definitely wrong, because I could guess and guess well. We’ll see.

A good protagonist doesn’t have to be good. By that I mean they don’t have to be fighting for the ‘goodies’. It makes life a whole lot easier if they are, but having readers care for a ‘bad guy’ is so much more of an achievement. That’s because the number one rule, in my amateurish opinion, is that the reader has to identify with them. Doesn’t matter how good the plot is, how badass the protagonist is—if you think they’re a dick, you won’t read on. So if the protagonist is a baddie, the writer needs to be clever in how they take the imagination of a normal law-abiding citizen and turn it to empathise with the actions of someone who’s done wrong.

Bad guys—particularly when they’re secondary characters—have a nasty habit of becoming two-dimensional cut-outs with no structure to them beyond an evil laugh and an inexplicable desire to live in a volcano. But bad guys are people too; they have thoughts and feelings, they wonder what the weather’s going to be like and they take their dogs for walks. As a writer, if you treat them like a person, build them up as someone who lives life as a day-to-day struggle, your readers will connect. The recent TV show Breaking Bad does a wonderful job of cajoling you as a viewer into empathising with protagonist Walter White, who, when given the news that he has cancer and only a few short months to live, uses his chemistry skills to cook meth and build a fund for his family when he’s gone. You see him, a normal guy, get swept into an unknown world, and you’re right there with him, and you care because he cares. It’s emotional blackmail when you think about it: the writers are saying, ‘here’s this nice guy, but things aren’t going too well for him right now. Maybe you should stick around to make sure he’s ok, cos, y’know, you’re a decent human being and that’s what decent human beings do.’

So we, as readers, do. The protagonist becomes our responsibility, and we’ve got to make sure they make it through to the end of the book. You know it’s done well when you finish the story and feel empty, like you’ve just lost a friend. Those manipulative writers forced you care . . .

But I don’t think it’s a simple as making the protagonist the kind of person you’d sit down with for a beer. Oftentimes, the ones you care most about are the ones you wouldn’t want to spend any time with at all, yet you seem obliged to feel bad for them from a distance. The disgruntled alcoholic cop who only ever works alone is a tried-and-tested example that works almost every time. It’s hackneyed, yes, but it works, and people enjoy it. If crime books were about cops with nice families and big houses and perfect lives, readers wouldn’t care less. Social pariahs need care, so they end up as our protagonists. The affliction doesn’t have to be as bare-faced as being a drug-addicted school drop-out that’s only two more hits away from heaven: sometimes the subtleties are all that’s needed. A normal guy with a normal job that gets put in a difficult situation can engender just as much sympathy if it’s done right.

Meet John, for example. He works in an office, nine to five, as a structural engineer. He’s nearly sixty, he has a nice house, a comfortable lifestyle, and his three kids have all grown up and left the nest. But recently he feels he’s been growing apart from his Sheila, his wife. Nothing bad’s been said, nothing’s really happened at all, but . . . he doesn’t know why, but the silence left behind when his youngest set off for university just keeps on getting louder. He stays late at work to avoid the twisting awkwardness of the gulf between him and Sheila, working himself into a knot of stress and anxiety. He wants to speak out but his voice won’t let him. There’s nothing he can do—no—nothing he can bear to do. So he sits in the office, watching the minutes tick by one by one, wishing each one was his last.

Now, with any luck you’ll feel a little sympathy towards old John here, even though nothing particularly bad has happened to him. Because the situation is one we all so inherently dread, it should be easy to relate to John’s feelings of confusion and despair. Perhaps you have some suggestions for John, and that’s good because it means you care enough to want to help. As the writer, it is then my job to carry the story forward without then frustrating the reader by making John take the dumb choice at every turn. I see that a lot, and it’s a cheap way to progress a plot that leaves a reader exasperated. Why, John, why didn’t you just step to the side when that boulder rolled down the hill after you? Are you stupid?

My last musing on the topic is the quality of believability. Readers have to believe in what our protagonists are doing, believe the decisions they make are sensible and rational, believe the reactions to their surroundings are genuine. Like a magic eye picture, a reader sinks into a book in a strange zen-state of semi-awareness, and unbelievable behaviour is a poke right in the eye for them, throwing them completely and leaving them with a distorted view of things. And as a subset of believability, its important to have consistency, too: changing behaviour and personality will leave a reader just as sore-eyed.

Well, I suppose that concludes this week’s unstructured ramble. I hope some of it makes sense, and I hope some of it is true. I strongly feel that what I’ve said isn’t far from reality, and with a little bit of luck I can heed my own advice and make something of it.

PS Two weeks today until the launch of Vessel! Exciting times!

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2 thoughts on “If not plot, then what?

  1. Very good points on character building and the importance compared to the plot.
    As for me…I care little of the where the story has come from, where its at nor where its going if I can’t love, hate, love to hate or hate to love the protagonist and his/her nemeses.

    I always come away with the best feeling for a story when the characters in general do in fact become real….as you say…do and say the things that I would do and or I know others like them would do. That works for me.

    Keep up the good words coming and I wish you the best with the launch of “Vessel”….I’ll be there for the Christening with a bottle of sparkly!!!

    • I think you’re spot on. Dislike the protagonist or just plain don’t care about them? Book’s dead in the water. Food served up on a fancy plate with nice presentation that tastes of nothing still tastes of nothing!

      Thank you, as always. I love writing, but knowing that people are out there supporting me on it makes it even more of a joy to do.

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