Delilah S Dawson: How To Plot A Character-Driven Story, or Why Harry Potter Should Probably Be A Complete D-bag

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Did you read NEVILLE LONGBOTTOM AND THE TERRIFYING VULTURE HAT?

No. You didn’t. Because even though Neville could’ve been the Chosen One, Voldemort decided it was Harry instead and set about killing off his parents and giving him a scar.

It all comes down to choices. Your choice, as the god and writer. And the choices your characters make.servants

First of all, let’s determine if your story is character-driven. Consider your main character. Does that story revolve around who they are, specifically, in such a way that it wouldn’t exist without them? Are their history, back story, and skills integral to every mile marker of the story? Could you replace them with another passerby and have the same end result? Could you have the same story if you made Neville the hero?

If you can’t replace your protagonist with a sentient lamp or switch out characters for the same ending, your story is probably character-driven. And that means that at every juncture of your plot, you must be true to you character’s history, feelings, personality, and skills. You can’t let your world shove them around to suit you, the writer. The protagonist must be an active participant. Which isn’t to say that the main character in a plot-driven story is merely an empty space; just that you will have fewer choices with each new challenge because *the character* will make the choices.

As an example, let’s talk a little more about Harry Potter.

Why do I choose Harry? Because his is a uniquely character driven story… that’s full of missteps.

The series is named after Harry and follows his point of view. Every step of the way, the story is Harry’s story and couldn’t proceed without his feelings, his reactions. If Voldemort had assumed Neville was the Chosen One, then the story would’ve gone completely differently. If Ron or Hermione had been making the calls, the plot would’ve taken a sharp turn. Every step, it’s all about Harry and Harry’s past and Harry’s choices and Harry’s mistakes, which means it’s character driven.

But… that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

First of all, a kid raised in a cupboard under the stairs with no hugs, no love, no warmth for nine years isn’t going to be a thoughtful, nice kid. He’s going to be a damaged sociopath incapable of real connections, or at least a depressive, antiheroic jerk who hates everything. When you start from the moment Hagrid shows up, the story is fine. But if you consider the previous nine years as told by Rowling, the character-driven story doesn’t do honor to a realistic consideration of Harry’s psyche and history. I think about this issue whenever I’m following a protagonist. Are they who they would actually be after the history and memories I’ve given them? Are they a realistic sum of their parts and backstory? If they’re not, you’re not doing your job properly as a writer.

If you’re looking at how Harry’s decisions move him through the plot, consider his first big decision. Draco offers him friendship, and Harry must choose between a powerful, rich kid and a friendly poor kid. He chooses Ron, and then he uses his knowledge of Draco and Slytherin to push the Sorting Hat away from Slytherin, which sends him into Gryffindor, which completely changes the tone of the protagonist and every choice made after that one. Imagine a book where Harry shrugs at Ron, shakes Draco’s hand, and gets sorted into Slytherin. Completely different book, right?

So how do you write something as character-driven as Harry Potter without falling prey to the plot holes and missteps? You make sure that every point is aligned, and you avoid making a melodramatically horrible backstory just to make a character sympathetic or more interesting. Even the worst childhoods are balanced out with moments of joy and mercy. And whoever your protagonist is when they start out, you make sure that the sins of their youth are visible as flaws and weaknesses. They must have strengths, both obvious and hidden. They must have negative traits and make mistakes. And you must give them the chance to change, to find redemption.

At the very least, you add in little touches that make it seem realistic. If Dumbledore had said, early on, β€œHarry, your mother’s love acted as a spell to help you weather any neglect, any sadness. It was a constant balm, such that any time the Dursleys were cruel to you, you had a permanent protective coating around your heart. Without that, you would surely be as damaged and broken as Voldemort.”

But he didn’t say that until rather late in the series. And so Harry Potter’s kindness, loyalty, and generosity seem unattached to his past, as if his entire life didn’t start until Hagrid showed up and removed him.

So:

  1. Decide who you need the character to be when the story begins.

  2. Decide who you want the character to be when the story ends.

  3. Figure out what history, memories, and nature would allow them to be both 1. and 2. and add them in at the appropriate moments to make it believable for the reader.

  4. At ever plot point both major and minor, look at 1. 2. and 3. and make sure the character’s decisions and dialog align with their past, present, and future.

  5. If you stall out or something isn’t working, go to the last plot point in the story. Do past, present, and future align? Did the character make the decision only they would make? Or did you, as the writer and the story’s god, push them in the direction that suited you best?

  6. At the end, make sure the character has experienced a satisfying arc that aligns with the plot.

Only in the later books did Rowling make it clear that Harry could just have easily turned out like Voldemort and Neville could’ve just as easily been the hero of the entire story. Part of the writer’s job is to constantly check the map, the compass, and the current position of the story and make sure that your character is exactly where they should be. That’s the only way to keep from getting lost or to unintentionally let your plot stray from where your character would take it.

If you’ve already written a draft and aren’t sure if your plot and character fit, I suggest making a chapter-by-chapter spreadsheet with columns for Major Events, Tension Rating, Plot Threads, and Character Arc. Going chapter by chapter, you should be able to go down the column and see the steps the character takes in time with the plot. If you see a hole, fix it. There’s nothing wrong with realigning your plot and character in later drafts. If you like, think of it as a spell.

EXCELLIUM CHARACTERPLOTIUM!

See? Even plot holes can be fixed with the right magic.

delilahauthorpicDelilah S. Dawson’s next release is her YA debut, SERVANTS OF THE STORM, a Southern Gothic Horror about hurricanes and demons in Savannah, GA. She’s also the author of the steampunk fantasy Blud series for Pocket, including Wicked as They Come, Wicked After Midnight, and Wicked as She Wants, which recently won the Steampunk Book of the Year award and the May Seal of Excellence from RT Book Reviews. Spring 2015 brings her next YA, HIT, a pre-dystopian about teen assassins in a bank-owned America. Delilah loves sassy boots, eating weird animals, painting, having adventures, and cupcakes and lives in the North Georgia mountains with her husband, children, a Tennessee Walking Horse, and a floppy mutt named Merle. If you want her to blush, read her geekrotica e-novellas, The Lumberfox and The Superfox, written under the pseudonym Ava Lovelace.

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4 comments to Delilah S Dawson: How To Plot A Character-Driven Story, or Why Harry Potter Should Probably Be A Complete D-bag

  • What an awesome post! There’s so much here that helps me right now. I working on a completely character driven novel. I knew it was character driven, but I hadn’t thought about it that way until I read your paragraph out there. (In some ways, I wonder if you could sell a book today in which any person could be dropped in the MC slot. I’m probably overthinking it.) I couldn’t change the MC, it wouldn’t be the same. It takes the MC I have, Cassie, in particularly broken, screwed up, okay, she might be evil sort of way.

    I also love what you have to say about aligning things, past-present-and-future. Would that self turn into this self and ever get to that self over there? How? What would it take to get that character to betray her friends? Or to NOT betray her friends? etc.

    I wish I had a comment that was more “let’s open a dialogue here…” but I don’t. I am settling down to finish a final read before I send my novel off to beta readers, and I’m really going to keep thinking about what you’ve said her as I move into further edits, and when I sit down to write new stories!

  • A lot of spot-on, applicable writing advice is packed into this post! I’ve seen books on character that don’t teach nearly as much, as certainly not in so succinct and helpful a manner. Good on, ya. πŸ™‚

  • Razziecat

    This is good stuff πŸ™‚ To me, the characters and the story are pretty much inseparable, but having a list of things to focus on is great! Thanks!

  • Kim H

    I’m a long time lurker, but I had to register to chime in and say a (late) thanks for the above post! It’s helped me work out a problem with my current project, and I am now much less squirmy about going into the next draft.