Character Development Driving the Plot


Last night the electricity went out and I grabbed some candles, my dog and a few old books I’d bought in the 90’s. One book was Dramatica Pro’s manual. In the 90’s I’d read as much of it as I could, then used the excuse that it was too cook-bookish to deny the fact that I was simply too impatient to read the whole thing and use the program.

Last night thumbing through it, I came across their idea that a story should have a main character going through a personal change that solves two issues:

1. a personal problem.

2. the story’s big problem.

Dramatica then did a clever revision of Jurassic Park as an example.

They had the young professor’s control issues (seen in the first scenes where he couldn’t tolerate the chaotic kids) become an issue that he consciously overcame by learning to like the chaotic kids later in the movie. Using the new insight this brought him (that too much control ironically unleashes more chaos) he was able to unleash some chaos by turning off all the electrical gates deliberately at the end, allowing the T. Rex to come in and save the kids from the Raptors. (In the actual movie, the Rex shows up randomly at just the right moment, as if on cue.) You’d have to read it to see how they altered a few details to do this, but their point was that the story would have been better in some ethereal way if written according to their insights.

Never one to swallow new advice whole, but even less apt to reject interesting things out of hand, I took their idea into council and went to my story to ask…

What personal issue does my protagonist, Johanna, have that she could overcome, and in doing so…

1. be able to solve a personal problem and

2. solve the story’s big problem in the last scenes?

This helped me decide what the big scene at the end should be about (bringing an ancient technology back into the world), what kind of scene it should be (a fight), and what sort of character development Johanna needs to do it (learning forgiveness).

I suddenly felt a powerful and specific guidance pushing me. Maybe I’ll buy Dramatica again, I’m sure it’s evolved since the 90’s.

The details of how my story grew might be boring, but…

Johanna had strangled her brother’s therapy animal, Bertha, when they were kids. Although she did it because the ape attacked him, she’d never been able to forgive herself.

As a result of the nightmares and guilt, she hasn’t been able to stick up for herself in physical confrontation, even though she realizes she could probably stand against anyone on earth in a fight.

Once, not long after killing Bertha, (I finally figured this out) she was raped, and although she knew, having successfully fought a strong animal, that she could overpower the boy, she didn’t fight back at all because she was afraid she would kill him. All she could see was Bertha’s dead body in her arms as the boy did what he did to her.

During the story, I now know that she will go through a mind-meld situation that gives her insight into the “nature of personal identity” by viewing other people’s perspectives from within them. (It’s an old thing they used to do on Easter Island with the Maoi technology.)

This teaches her how natural it should be to forgive someone. (I should mention that she has a condition called, “perfect autobiographical memory,” that makes it difficult for people forgive and forget.) Her new ability to forgive others brings the side-effect of allowing her to forgive herself – the personal breakthrough that Dramatica Pro recommends.

Having learned to forgive herself for killing Bertha, she’s now able to defend herself in the last scenes where a physical fight is required in order to take the mind-meld technology public, in hopes that allowing people to see through other people’s eyes will enlighten them and bring an end to war.

I don’t know if my characters will be willing to stick to this plan while I’m writing. They usually don’t cooperate fully with my preconceived plot ideas.

But at least I have direction now.

Before the lights went out last night, I was paralyzed by too many ideas coming at once. I couldn’t keep them all in working memory or decide which to write and which to jettison.

Now I’ve got ordered chaos and renewed enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm, by the way, is sort of essential to me as a writer, because I’m still at the amateurish stage where emotion drives me to write more than self-discipline.

I hope to get beyond that someday… when I grow up.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel is not merely character driven, it’s written by a girl from a parallel universe. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog ( Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

6 thoughts on “Character Development Driving the Plot

  1. “paralyzed by too many ideas coming at once. I couldn’t keep them all in working memory or decide which to write and which to jettison.”

    They’re probably all excellent ideas, and deserve to be written and kept somewhere, even if they don’t make it into your current WIP.

    “Enthusiasm, by the way, is sort of essential to me as a writer, because I’m still at the amateurish stage where emotion drives me to write more than self-discipline. I hope to get beyond that someday… when I grow up.”

    An “amateur” is one who loves an activity. Emotion should be what drives all writing. A self-disciplined writer is one from whom all love, emotion and enthusiasm has been drained. Don’t grow up.

    • You talked me into it. I’ll forget about growing up. At 58, what were the odds, anyway? 😉

      I’ve got a file called, “clever ideas” that I’ve been keeping for many years. I toss anything in there that I think may eventually be worthy of the light of day.

      Thank you for all your wonderful comments! 🙂

          • Okay! I was referring to shipping out for Earth duty, in case I was too obscure. It’s interesting when I run across somebody of my age. Reassuring, too, as when I stumbled across Tom Hanks’s birthday, saw that he’s about six months younger than I am, and felt more resigned towards my not aging gracefully, because he hasn’t either.

            • I shipped out on 1,20000.00002, but that wasn’t by Earth’s calendar. 😉 I landed on a warm Wednesday.

              Has Tom Hanks aged already? I haven’t seen in a long time. It was great how somebody had the foresight to take those childhood shots of him for the movie Big. 😉

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