Plot v. Character

13 Nov

or How to Infuse Your Fiction with Better Characters and Imagery in Mere Minutes

The paradoxical wooden character tries to at least be sad about being wooden.

Added to my growing pile of rejection letters is the following from On Spec Magazine, a science fiction magazine based in Edmonton, Alberta.

Thanks for sending us your story. After a close reading, we have determined that it will not be a good fit for On Spec. There are many reasons why stories get rejected. We look for the most effective combination of plot, characters, emotion and originality. Some stories have one or two of these traits, but only a few have all of them. And sometimes, the story just doesn’t suit our own particular editorial style.  While there is some interesting history here, the SF element is slim. Not for us.

Keep working on your stories, and do send this one to another magazine. We can’t use it, but someone else might.  If you haven’t yet read a copy of On Spec, now might be the time to check it out. It could help to give you a better idea of the type of work we are most likely to buy. Keep in mind that we publish only 5% of the 1,000+ manuscripts we receive each year. You can find out how to order a sample print or digital copy of On Spec by visiting our website.

The Editors

Although this is essentially a form letter, there is some good info buried in there.  Specifically, the letter says that good stories need to combine plot, emotions, and so on.  How boring, you say.  Everyone knows that.  Well, you might be surprised how many people, even good well-published authors, focus exclusively on one aspect of a story and ignore the others.  Stories are comprised of equal parts plot and imagery/emotion/character-based content.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen a writer who is good at plot, but isn’t terribly apt at creating a real world filled with tangible characters and images.  Popular authors who fit into this category are Michael Crichton, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer… I dunno… George Lucas…  Most writers seem to fit into this description even though they try to innervate their writing with more thorough scenes and characters.  Popular writers who seem to focus more on emoting than plotting are folks like Miriam Toews and Margaret Atwood.  Very few have a knack for both.  One might be Khaled Hosseini.

The best thing you can do to instill a sense of reality into your writing is to be observant.  Don’t wall yourself off into your cocoon of keyboards and glowing monitors.  Sit at a cafe and watch how people act and talk.  Take note of the timing of events on street corners.  Ride buses.  Go to libraries or shops.  Think about colours, textures, temperatures, sounds, smells, and shapes or objects and how they might appear to another person.  See if you can describe the call of birds or the way alpine winds rush through trees.  Try to place yourself in the spot of the character and describing their surroundings, the feeling and appearance of everything.

Are you characters too wooden?  Here is a quick way I’ve devised to turn your Pinocchio character into a whole person.  For each of your characters, place them on the following spectrums:

  • Traditional: range from being mostly conventional to being mostly unorthodox
  • Political orientation: range from communist to socialist to social democrat to liberal to more conservative to totalitarian
  • Religion: range from none (needing empirical evidence) to finding some things unexplainable to believing in magic, fate, afterlife, and god(s)
  • Sexual identity: range from secure to openly curious to unconfident to denial
  • Ability to discuss sex
  • Intelligence
  • Ability to see patterns: range from seeing patterns everywhere to seeing no patterns at all (chaos)
  • Common sense: ranges from finding many everyday tasks easy or obvious to finding tasks generally complex
  • Intuition: can sense unspoken or invisible qualities of a situation, can pick up on some hidden things like others’ emotions, or unable to understand unuttered things
  • Creativity: actively invents new things based on original ideas, likes to look at things in new ways, or doesn’t care to invent or imagine
  • Art: can interpret many works of creativity, can understand some art, can’t fathom most art beyond face value
  • Musical tastes/food tastes/ interest in books
  • Friendliness: range from very friendly to generally defensive
  • Extroversion: is happy talking to anyone, comfortable around friends, has few friends, entirely introverted
  • Assertiveness: ranges from very assertive to never assertive
  • Willingness to assert/help the rights of others
  • Temperament
  • Ability to deceive: capable of breaking laws
  • Judgmental
  • Complaining
  • Worrying
  • Sense of duty

There are likely other metrics you can think of, and don’t forget that people usually carry with them influences from others they’ve known in the past.  They end up with all kinds of weird sayings and mannerisms.  You can make your characters all sorts of combinations of these traits, not to mention all the myriad of physical characteristics and health maladies.  Remember that people’s minds are often riddled with complexities and perplexities, or denial.  Also, one character’s turmoil is small potatoes to another character who has a worse life, or what one person views as another’s good fortunes may not seem as such to the person experiencing the “fortunes.”  Life is made up of warts and thorns, pitfalls and dead-ends, and not by the airbrushed anorexic airheads you see in all the movies and TV shows these days.

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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Rejections, Revisions, Writing


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