Always Remember that it’s CHARACTERS that Drive Your Story

April 7, 2017     Michelle     Worldbuilding 101, Writing

I found myself stuck in an outlining rut the other day. I’m about at my typical point of being stuck at the first major plot hole, roughly 15,000 words in. Go figure. Happens EVERY time I get to this point.

I’m a bit of a plantser when it comes to writing. I work off of an outline, but the depth of said outline varies depending on where in the plot I am. I always have the macro plot pretty thoroughly understood, but by the time I start writing, there are usually plenty of places where I just go “Something happens to get from A to B.”

And typically this is fine; I trust my characters to do the rest of the heavy lifting because, after all, they’re the ones driving the show. They keep me nimble and on my toes.

But for whatever reason, no matter what I’m working on, I hit this rut right around 15k. It’s infuriating.

This time I had everything laid out quite nicely and things were progressing as planned, and then suddenly I didn’t know what was supposed to happen. I know where I need things to be in about 5 chapters, but I have NO IDEA how to get there.

Check out how I created this map here!

My main character is trying to stir up political trouble, you see, and he’s instigating a war between two countries because he needs them to be distracted while he does shenanigans somewhere else. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get the ball rolling without making it an easy victory for the offensive country. If a takeover is easy, it not only doesn’t keep them distracted, but it also presents a roadblock to Razken’s future plans.

So I was wracking my brain for days trying to find a solution. I kept staring at the page asking myself “What would Razken do if ___ happened?” I did side shorts to get more into Razken’s mindset. I created annotated maps to show how the economies of this world work. And I couldn’t find a solution to my problem.

This weekend I finally asked for help. My husband is useless; he suggested several solutions for the short-term problem that would cause me even more headache later on. But one of my very good friends who lives nowhere near me is also a writer, and he set me straight.

I was thinking too much about the countries and the economies. But remember, he said, countries don’t do things. People do.

Yes, I know this is difficult to read. Spoilers!

Now, I’ve heard this advice before. I’ve even given it to people. But for whatever reason, in that moment it was mind-blowing. I hadn’t even considered who the people were in leadership positions in these countries. I hadn’t once considered what their motivations were or what they would care about.

And within minutes of brainstorming a new character on my whiteboard, my problem solved itself. Quite elegantly, I might add.

I still don’t quite have all the details planned out yet, but I’m much less concerned now than I was. And I learned a valuable lesson:

It’s characters that drive your story, no matter what is going on. Without them, you don’t have a plot. Without them, you don’t have motives. And you need more than just your main character — it’s the supporting cast that make or break the believability of your plot and world. Don’t forget about them.

Have you run into ruts trying to find creative solutions while outlining? What has worked for you?

  • I’ve been in the biggest writing slump ever, I’m still suck at that 15k mark but don’t know where to go from there. I still haven’t found a solution yet, since I’m stuck on working on a new outline, but I have found that reading other books that are similar to the one your writing can sometime help in seeing a way out of your problem. Good luck with your writing!! 🙂

    • Michelle

      I LOATHE the 15k mark. It is the WORST. This go round with Camp NaNoWriMo, I blazed right through it though! 😀 Reading similar books actually doesn’t help me personally terribly much. I might end up getting some ideas, but I’m always hesitant to use them because I don’t want my WIP to end up sounding like that book. More often, though, I just end up in a slump of writer envy and convince myself that I will never be able to write like that. I try NOT to do that, but sometimes I can’t help it.

  • A a writing post!! I look forward to these so much 🙂 And yes definitely agreed that characters take a story forward! And aww..your husband was just trying to help!! 😛 🙂 And wow i love how seriously you write..I have sticky notes on my walls forming a web sorta thing when I work on my plot. I write what one person does on one note then make arrows that show the consequences of the person’s action and reactions from other characters and so on 🙂 It really helps! Great post Michelle 🙂

    • Michelle

      Ahaha, yes, I know, my husband was trying to help — and he actually DID help. That particular brainstorming session just didn’t move me forward very far and it was frustrating, haha. I really don’t write that seriously at all, to be honest! I’m just excited about this particular project 🙂
      I like your sticky note web idea! That sounds awesome! 🙂

  • I love that you found the solution to your problem and that you’re so happy with it. I agree that character-focus is always the best!

    • Michelle

      Thanks! It really should have been obvious, but I’m glad I got there eventually! 😉