Writers often debate about the best way to write: plot-driven or character-driven.
Plot-driven implies vast sheets of butchers paper covered in post-it notes, or timelines nutted out on Excel or some other left-brain device. You know the story, you know the structure, you stick to it. Character-driven, on the other hand, implies unpredictability and writing by the seat of your pants, based on the whims of characters you’ve created.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. So here’s the plan: why not do a bit of each?
For my first ever manuscript several years ago, I took the plot-driven approach. The piece was a sweeping family saga, based on extensive research, real people and real events. How else could I translate all that wonderful information into a story of hardship, migration, still more hardship, and eventual triumph? My timeline was my lifeline. I depended on it for everything. The plot was all there in perfect sequence, the way it actually happened. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing.
When I submitted the manuscript for professional feedback, here’s what I got.
Your characters are like cardboard cut-outs moving through a landscape. Your structure is so constricting, you’ve left yourself no room to move. Loosen up. Take your main characters out to the pub, get to know them, understand where they’re coming from.
Hoo-boy! All that hard work and I’d have to start again. (By the way, it’s still not finished. It will be, one day. It’s a piece I’m passionate about.)
For my second manuscript, which became Baby Farm, I tried the character-driven approach. Working with a group of other budding authors under the tutelage of a true professional, the writing experience was a sheer delight. What fun I had with those characters! I knew and loved them as if they were long-time friends of mine. We went to parties, got drunk, and on more than one occasion ended up in bed together.
So much for the first draft. When I read what I’d written several months later, there was no structure at all. Just three big characters who popped up willy-nilly, whenever and wherever they pleased. Back to the drawing board. Literally. I knew about timelines, I knew about structure. And this time I knew my characters.
The only thing to do was deconstruct the manuscript. On the computer I ripped it apart, cutting and pasting each character into a separate timeline. It hurt a lot, but it made it easy to see the problems. There were huge holes in the plot and times when major characters simply disappeared for chapters on end. Several weeks of rewriting later, I had three character stories of similar length that actually worked.
Reconstruction was the easy part. Take three strands of ribbon and plait them together.
My current work in progress is called Ruby Tattoo. The character-driven approach won me over, so that’s how it started. The problem with this piece is its one-eyed point of view. There’s no counter-balance. No yin and yang. I thought I’d finished until I attempted to do a character arc for my main female character. It was then I realised she doesn’t have one at all. Actually she’s dead (she dies in Chapter 1), yet the entire story is about her.
Tears of blood have fallen onto the keyboard this week. The entire thing has been pulled apart. Now there’s a structure that will work and several new chapters to write.
And I’m excited.