characters / plot / writers tips

Writers Tip #62: It’s Not What Happens to Your Character Readers Care About. It’s Their Reaction That Matters

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Today’s tip: Worry less about plot and more about character development.

If writers had to depend upon plot to sell a story, we’d all go broke. There is one basic plot. Hero starts out with a tolerable/happy/exciting life. Something happens that throws her/him into crisis. S/he tries to solve it (over and over) and fails each time. When s/he is about to fail for the final time, Eureka! Against all odds, Hero pulls it out and is changed forever from the experience.

Here’s a secret: The story line isn’t what matters; it’s how the Hero reacts to events that makes a blockbuster novel. This is where writers can explore a multitude of plotting options. Does the Hero problem solve with his heart or head? Does s/he do it alone or with help? As a lawyer, doctor, archeologist, teacher, some other unique career? That where the story comes in. As individual each person in the world is, that’s how many variations on a theme there are. What you came up with from the short plot I outlined is likely considerably different from my paleo-historic plot line.

So revel in that. Let your voice be heard. Spin your yarn with abandon. The more unique is your imagination, the more spirited your muse, the more likely you will succeed.

More tips on characters:

Demographics of a Trekkie

Torture Your Protagonist

Words Lie, Body Language Doesn’t

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, a freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-8 technology curriculum and technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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11 thoughts on “Writers Tip #62: It’s Not What Happens to Your Character Readers Care About. It’s Their Reaction That Matters

  1. I agree. Right now I’m struggling with a project I’ve been working on for two years. I’ve underestimated the importance of character. I’m reworking a draft now but starting to wonder if it wouldn’t be better in first person. I’ve just finished reading 2 books in first person and I know that’s probably influencing me. I’m writing a mystery with 3 main characters, 1 being the most prominent protagonist. Any suggestions???

    • I too am considering rewriting a book I love (that no one else does) in first person, in an effort to connect better with readers. I’m kind of excited about trying it. I think 1st person would ramp up the mystery (because the reader knows less–cuz they’re only in one head) and make it more personal.

      What’s your thought process?

      • I could write a lot in relation to this dilemma. Reading ‘Wonder’ and ‘How we Live Now’ (great books), both told in first person, I felt the emotion come sailing through. I felt what my book lacks–that personal contact with the mind/thoughts/heart of the protagonist. Yes I love the narrator style of Grisham (he makes it look effortless), but when I take a step back and think about my writing style, my VOICE, when it’s easiest for me to write, it’s first person. My blog naturally is first person, but why not translate that style to a novel format? I’m just thinking out loud here…I might try drafting a chapter to see how it would feel to be Allie (in first person), my seventeen year old protagonist from an overprotective family, as she starts college, learns about love, and becomes embroiled with the kidnapping of her art professor and a religious splinter group she discovers….hmmm

  2. I’m learning how character really makes the story and hoping to improve piece by piece. My plot usually meanders this way and that as the main character tries to control his or her journey. Well, this sounds good and hopefully, that’s what I accomplish when I write.

    Great subjects you bring up, Jacqui. Love your posts. :-D

  3. I love it Jacqui every action there is a reaction based on what has happened in your hero’s past I will remember this for my novels and keep weaving and building solid characters thanks to you and your wonderful space here.

    • Thank you, Kath. I love reading series for exactly the reasons you’ve noted. I feel like I get to know the characters and don’t want to let go. Much the same reason I follow blogs–I get fascinated by the writers and want to see what they do and how–and why!

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