Braiding the Character with the Plot


Today, I’d like to talk about one powerful way to shape your plot—around the character journey. This will make you more productive because you will have this major plot theme in mind as you design scenes. How does this event further the character’s journey? will be the question you keep in mind as you plot the scenes!


If you think of the plot as the protagonist's journey, you can overcome a lot of the Fear of Plotting. So let’s talk about the journey, and then connect it to the parts of the plot. 




Think of the plot as the journey of this character to a new place in life... to some growth or change or understanding. In most popular fiction, this journey will be towards something more positive-- she will be a better person in the end than she was in the beginning. (In a tragedy, it will be from good to bad, or bad to worse, as with Hamlet.) 


Through the events of the plot and her own choices, the character will have grown towards greater awareness or greater strength or a better relationship with her family-- something positive. (Of course, there will be some books where the "growth" will be negative-- she starts out innocent and becomes corrupt, for example.) Before this series of events happened, she couldn't become that "new self," but afterwards, through the changes she has had to make because of the plot, she has changed within. Oh, yeah, she's also solved that mystery or won that gold medal or lost the contest or got a new job... whatever the external change is you've got planned.


There's a continual in-and-out between external and internal here-- the external events cause internal changes, which allow her to grow in a way that makes it more likely she'll resolve the external conflict. So one thing you'll want to identify is what you think your protagonist's journey is towards-- how he needs to grow and change. If you write inspirational fiction, you are probably already doing this, because you believe in the power of spiritual and emotional change.


Here are some generic journeys.  


Some Protagonist Journeys:  

 Mystery to truth  

Fear to courage  

Doubt to decision (Hamlet)

 Revenge to justice  

Sin to redemption  

Isolation to alliance  

Denial of fate to acceptance of fate (Oedipus)  

Ambition to destruction (Macbeth)  

Exile to home (Odyssey)  

Delusion to realization  

Self-delusion to self-knowledge  

Deception to truth

Innocence to corruption  

Naivete to disillusion

Naivete to intelligence  

Smugness to humility (King Lear)  

Alienation to reconciliation  

Guilt to amends  

Shame to self-acceptance  

Self-deception to self-awareness  

Obsession to balance  


Here are some more detailed examples of actual protagonist journeys:


John starts out wanting revenge against the man who killed his father. The plot journey teaches him, however, that the situation was far more complicated than he imagined, and that vengeance might only destroy his own soul. So he ends up, instead of killing the man, turning him into the police. He travels from revenge to justice.   


Charity needs to be needed in the beginning of the book. That's how she knows she's loved, because her loved ones need her. She has to learn that she can be loved for who she is and not just what she does. So her journey is from giving-for-love to giving-into-love.   


Plotting the Three Acts through the Character Journey


Most stories break into three sections or “acts”:

Act I. Set up
Act II. Rising Action
Act III. Climax and Resolution

    In my historical mystery, Natasha starts out avoiding the past, and ends up accepting the past. Of course, other things happen (she falls in love with a “frenemy” and together they solve a murder), but the major emotional change that allows everything else is from her avoidance of the past to her acceptance of the past.


    Here’s how that plays out in the events of the plot:


    Act 1: The past confronts Natasha, when a Russian servant from her childhood arrives at the inn. She avoids him.


    Act 2: The past rises up: The servant is murdered that night, and Natasha is the most likely suspect, as she is the only other Russian person at the inn.


    Act 3: In order to solve the murder, Natasha must finally relive and describe the traumatic event when she last saw the servant, during Napoleon’s invasion of their home country.


    See how the beginning and end of the journey can be spread across the three acts of the plot.


    In Act 1, the starting point of the journey is shown when Natasha specifically avoids the past in the form of the old servant.

                Note: The reader can’t guess the starting point of the journey without a bit of help from you! So look at your first or second scene. Can you show the character at the starting place somehow?

                Example: To show a character starting at “lack of trust,” you could have Tom in the first scene following the security guard around and making sure that the locks are indeed all locked. Then in the inciting incident, he could suspect that Sadie is lying when she warns him to stay home from work Tuesday.


    In Act 2, the consequences of this starting point cause something to happen (usually in the external plot). This something is usually negative in some way, because, of course, we generally don’t change unless we have to! Natasha’s refusal to explain about her past leads to her being suspected in the murder.

                Note: Act 2 is about rising action or rising conflict, so the change event should be strong enough to force a perhaps-recalcitrant character into making a choice or action, not necessarily the right one—rising conflict can come from the character making a stubbornly wrong choice, like Natasha refusing to remember her past.

                Examples: What rising conflict could come from Tom’s refusal to trust?

    Because he refuses to trust Sadie’s warning, he is captured by the bad guys.



    External plot and internal plot are most effective when braided together




    In Act 3, through the dark moment and the climax events, the character is confronted with the need to take the step that resolves some problem, and also completes the character journey. So Natasha finally reveals what happened that long-ago day in Russia, and in letting herself remember the past, she is able finally to figure out why this man from her past ended up murdered.  

                Note: Remember that the external plot (like the mystery) and the emotion/internal plot (the character journey) are most effective when they’re braided together. So see if you can make the events take her towards her destination, and her journey’s completion helping resolve the external plot.

                Example:  How can completing the character journey connect to the climax—the solution to the external plot?

    When Tom sees Sadie with the kidnappers, he thinks at first that he was right all along—she’s untrustworthy. But then when she whispers she’s here to help him, he lets himself trust—and she helps him escape.


    So let’s try that with your own story:




    Journeys imply conflict and movement

    Your protagonist is on a journey. The plot is the vehicle that gets him/her there. Now it’s your turn!  Look back up at that list of protagonist journeys. There are MANY more out there-- this is just a sample of sort of umbrella journey categories. You can make up your own! Notice that the journeys imply conflict and movement of some kind.  


    Brainstorm from these questions:


    1.  So where does your character start, and where does he/she end up? 
    2. What internal resonance does this have-- how does the journey change who this person is?

    3. List a few steps your protagonist will have to take to complete this journey:

    a. How is the starting point shown in Act 1?
    b. In Act 2, what event(s) force the character into rising conflict around this journey issue?
    c. In Act 3, how does the completion of the journey help this character resolve the external problem (and/or vice versa, how does resolving the external problem help the character complete the journey)?
        4. Any other thoughts or questions about your character’s journey?

      So how does this work in your plot? If you think about your character’s journey, you’ll see ways to make this journey affect the external plot (the mystery or competition or whatever). Obviously, when the central character starts to change, how he acts and reacts will change too.

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