Continuing Education 3: Plot Versus Character
At the end of Day One, Jeff Gerke (right) told his class they now had the hero of their story. At the end of Day Two, he said they now had their plot and could begin writing their novels.
Gerke wasn’t kidding. In his continuing education class, Plot Versus Character, participants were taken through an intricate series of exercises that allowed them to construct their major character and then formulate a compelling plot around that character. Students left with a novel begging to be written.
Day One: Create your character
Jeff Gerke—author, editor, and publisher (at Marcher Lord Press)—made developing complex characters seem easy. He used something akin to a fill-in-the-blank approach.
Start from the inside and work outward.
“Start from the inside and work outward,” Gerke said. Students were encouraged to use David Keirsey’s Please Understand Me II to determine their character’s core values and personality traits. Keirsey’s book is based on the Myers-Briggs Temperament sorter that gives titles like Healer, Champion, and Composer to the various personality types—there are 16.
After deciding on a personality type, students then filled in the vital statistics. Gender, age, ethnicity, appearance. Hair color, eye color, and shape of the face. Still more details:
- Does the character have any scars? If so, where did they come from?
- How does the person dress?
- What is her fitness level?
More and more information was added until students had a good picture of their main character.
Turn to the spiritual
Gerke instructed the class to figure out what spiritual gifts the character has.
The next step was to decide on some spiritual aspects. What love language does the character use? The book, The Five Love Languages, provides guidance to determine whether a person responds more to receiving gifts or acts of service. Perhaps time spent together is the most important gift for the character. Along with finding a love language, Gerke also instructed the class to figure out what spiritual gifts the character has.
Family of origin
From there, Gerke went on to define a character’s major life events and culture.
- What events in the character’s family of origin shaped her personality? Was she abused? Had she been locked in a closet during a game of hide-and-seek? Lost a loved one? Were her parents divorced?
- What about siblings? Where is she in the birth order? Was she the favorite? The spoiled one? Or the middle child who was ignored?
All these elements provide reasons for the character’s behavior in certain situations. Even if they never make it into the story, the author should know these details so he can know the character inside and out.
What is it that gets in the way of knowing God?
Another aspect in the spiritual life of the character is the desire for God’s approval. What is it that gets in the way of knowing God? Or realizing there is forgiveness in Christ? A major part of the story will be the Inner Journey the main character takes as she discovers God’s love and activity in her life.
Finally, when bringing a main character to life, decide what’s likeable or heroic about the character and how others perceive her. Once again, part of the journey of the story will be for the main character to discover and use that heroic part of herself in order to meet the conflict that will make up the plot of the novel.
Day Two: Craft your plot
Now that the main character is known, discover your plot. Gerke pointed out that in quality writing, there needs to be a two-track model for the plot: an Inner Journey and the External Plot. Both move side by side in the story, and all the details the author now knows about his main character come into play.
First quarter of your book
In the first quarter of the story, on the External Plot side, there is a “villain” and “time bomb.” These may be an actual person and an actual bomb, or they might be a disease and an approaching court date. The genre of the novel plays a big part in determining these two elements.
On the Inner Journey, the main character’s “initial condition” and “knot” are revealed. The initial condition of the character sets the stage for the Inner Journey the character will take. The knot is the problem tied up inside the character that needs to be untied. This will make up the main conflict of the novel.
In order to get the character started on her journey, an “inciting event” needs to occur:
- The twister in The Wizard of Oz.
- Luke’s home being destroyed in Star Wars.
- Bill Murray’s character waking up to a repeat day in Groundhog Day.
These are all examples of inciting events. The main character has to go on the journey now.
The chewy juicy middle
This is the fun part, where all the big action happens.
“This is the fun part, where all the big action happens,” Gerke said. For the External Plot, this is where the stakes continue to rise, where the main story is engaged, and where the stage is set for the final push to a climax. On the Inner Journey side, the main character is being taken through events that challenge her to respond. At some point, she has to decide on a course of action.
For the final quarter of the story, the External Plot contains the climactic moment:
- The time bomb is dealt with (or goes off)
- The villain is confronted
- The action reaches the high point.
During this portion of the story, the main character faces her moment of truth on her Inner Journey and takes the action needed to deal with the conflict of the story. The External Plot and Inner Journey come together at this point to bring about the final battle.
The results of the final battle show us not only how the action of the External Plot ends, but also how the Inner Journey ends for the main character—what choices did she make? The final scenes contain the final state of the character’s Inner Journey and the resolution of the External Plot.
Gerke’s presentation delivered exactly what he promised. The students now had a fully fleshed-out main character and a full plot from beginning to end. “Now, go write,” he said.