Which Is More Important Plot or Character?

Today is Nov. 14, almost halfway through the month, and I have written 32, 398 words to date, so I should be more than half-way through the novel.  Writing my first novel for NaNoWriMo doesn’t make me an expert writer, but I am learning along the way.  So I wanted to share some of my thinking as I am going through this project.

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Did I give away my answer as to which is most important in my book?  To be honest, when I started I thought characters were more important to the story.  Without characters, it’s hard to have a plot.  I had to decide whether they were young or old, male or female before I could decide what they would do.  In this situation, I went with what I know best because I only have a month, and that isn’t enough time to do any extensive research.

After I determined three main characters, I still didn’t have a clear picture of what I thought my characters would do.  They were single women in their sixties, but I didn’t want to write a murder mystery like Murder She Wrote.  I chose romance, which, of course, I read – lots.

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I googled plots, and came up with one blog that was especially helpful to outline your plot.  I cut and pasted this outline into my Character/Plot page, and I refer to it frequently as I write.  I edit things in and out as the characters change their own lives.  The blogger’s words are italicized.  I coded my characters using different headings so you can tell who is who.  There is a different plot for the three characters, so it was essential for me to keep them separate and develop a plot for each of them.

Act One: First 25% http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/10/plotting-with-michael-hagues-six-stage.html

0-10% – Stage One: The Setup: The protagonist is fully in his identity. He isn’t trying to change his life yet, even if he feels something is wrong. Often he doesn’t yet realize something is wrong. Then along comes an…

This was helpful to me because I realized that the person couldn’t be too self-aware, even at age 60+.  They might know they have a problem, but they don’t think of it as a handicap.  Or maybe they know it’s a handicap, but their real handicap is something else that they consider a source of pride in their character.

Here is how I started using this plot template.  The three characters, friends for 30 years from a small church that closed 10 years ago, have gone different directions, yet remain close friends.

Ann, a 65-year-old widow, whose long-time husband died of cancer is not looking for love.  She is shy, and doesn’t want to make the first move.  She also has a spoiled son, and  this may cause her some problems as well when it comes to having a relationship with “possible new Guy”.  Her religious beliefs and her cultural norms are tied together, and she believes in the aggressive man and submissive woman to a fault.

Trixie , 61, is gun-shy about men after three near marriages ended before they began.  She’s friendly, retired and has a full life with part-time work and community responsibilities.  She doesn’t have a clue to her character flaw that might have caused three marriages not to happen, and whether or not she can even find someone to love.

Sarah, 63, a widow whose handsome husband was killed in an accident, runs from facing the fact that she will eventually have to slow down. Very popular with men, she dates constantly on and offline.  She works full-time, and gives her time to everyone who needs it especially her twin girls and their children. She is getting more and more tired.   She lives on sodas and sweets, and a few diet pills from time to time.  She tries to turn life into a joke and make light of everything that happens to her.  It isn’t working, but she doesn’t realize it until disaster strikes.

10% Mark – Turning Point One: Opportunity: Something happens that provides an opportunity for the protagonist to act, and this will lead him to what will ultimately make him happy and complete. This opportunity leads to a…

Ann needs a new computer and she sees a man she had met at a dance.  He works part-time at the big box store, and is a pastor and of which church.  He is also very shy.  So now they both have the means to contact each other in the future.

Trixie falls in love on her own, and is obsessed with a charming, handsome man 3 years her junior. She can think of nothing or no one else, but he is not attentive, and lives about 250 miles away from her.

SARAH HAS A PHONE PAL, PAUL, AND MORE BLIND DATES THAN ANY TEEN COULD HANDLE.  SHE ALSO ARRANGES A BLIND DATE AT THE COAST for all three of the women, WHICH MIGHT RUIN UP HER FRIENDSHIP WITH BOTH OF HER BEST FRIENDS.

10-25% – Stage Two: New Situation: The protagonist gets a glimpse of what life would be life if he took the opportunity and acted. Things are changing for him, and it’s all very new and exciting, yet also scary. This leads to…

Between each of these descriptors I started to outline what I thought would happen to the characters.  I sometimes go back and change these as the story develops based on what the characters do as they interact with each other through their dialogue.  But at least I have a vague idea of how the story is going to develop.

25% Mark – Turning Point Two: A Change in Plans: The protagonist changes what he’s been doing and acts. This launches act two.

I actually started a new page for act two summarizing what had gone on in Act 1.  This helped me cement and realize that one event in the story had really been pivotal for all three women.  Until I did that, it was just an event.

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Act Two: 25-75%

In act two, the protagonist works on changing his life and solving the problems of the plot. He isn’t sure how to do that and has both victories and setbacks. Act two breaks out like this:

25-50% – Stage Three: Progress: The protagonist tries to accomplish things to fix the problems and become the person he wants to be, eventually reaching the…

What I like about this plot line pattern is that it gives an approximate percentage of the book that should be completed by the time this happens in the story.

50% Mark – Turning Point Three: Point of No Return: This is the no going back point. Whatever happens, the protagonist fully commits to his course of action. He knows what he wants and is going for it full tilt. Which leads to…

In real life we go back and forth, and may never make a permanent change in our lives.  But this is a story, and if it is going to have a happy ending, the characters are going to have to fix what’s broken about their lives.

50-75% – Stage Four: Complications and Higher Stakes: The protagonist moves further into becoming the person he’s going to be and the resolution to his problem. But things are getting harder and the consequences are getting higher. Which leads to a…

This keeps the story interesting, and moving in the same directions, and keeps me from losing focus.

75% Mark – Turning Point Four: Major Setback: The protagonist screws up, often by getting overwhelmed with the new life and problem and retreated to the person her used to be. He falls/descends into…

I thought we were through with problems at this point, and I would have just ended the story, but this made me think it through, and add some depth!  🙂

75-90% – Stage Five: Final Push: The protagonist finally sheds his old self and becomes the new person, and this enables him to face…

This is going to be hard for my older lady characters.  Their ways are pretty set in stone, but some, if not all, of them may make good choices.

90-99% – Turning Point Five: The Climax: The final fight with the antagonist and the resolution of the story’s problem. The protagonist realizes if he fully embraces the new him, he will win. This ends with…

I’m all mapped out, plot-wise, but I haven’t written this yet.  Even doing this little review, has given me some more insight into my characters, which may change the outcome of the plot development.

100% – Stage Six: Aftermath: The protagonist has survived his ordeal and journey and is now the person he wanted to be, and has resolved the problems he was facing. He’s shed the old and embraced the new and takes the first steps in his new life.

2013 BOV Quilt Show117rBTW, these pictures are from the Best of Valley Quilt Show that I attended this spring thanks to the generosity of my friend, Carmen Friesen.

So in the end, is plot or character development more important to the story?  I’m less sure than I was at the beginning of this post!  What do you think?

Avila Beach, The Perfect Place to Write a Novel

Notice I didn’t say set a novel. I set the novel partly in Pismo Beach, mostly in Visalia.  Why, because it just seems to be working its way out there.

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This is the fork of San Luis Creek that didn’t make it to the ocean.

I was so fortunate to have beautiful weather while I was in Avila.  My writing schedule was fantastic.  I crawled out of bed around 7:00 a.m. and made coffee, checked emails, and my blog.  By 9:30 I finished housekeeping chores, and walked 3 miles to Avila Beach.  I was stranded there without a vehicle because Vince came home to be with his son, but I was close to everything I needed.

Taken with my iPhone, this coyote looked hungry. Maybe I was just imagining it because I was hungry. He left the water without grabbing a duck-to-go.
Taken with my iPhone, this coyote looked hungry. Maybe I was just imagining it because I was hungry. He left the water without grabbing a duck-to-go.

To get to Avila by foot there is a three-mile long bike path called Bob Jones Trail.  I have written about that before, so I won’t bore you with details.  I did see three coyotes on my walks this time.  This was a holiday weekend, so the path was crowded over the weekend, but that made it all the more interesting.  By this time I had run out of clothes, so I had to start wearing Vince’s shirts.  One day I wore his Shelby t-shirt and two men stopped walking and looked at me.  “I love your shirt,” One of them said.  Getting a t-shirt compliment is really rare for me, so I was pleased.  He continued, “My name’s Shelby.”  That explained the compliment, and we went on our separate and opposite ways.

Farther upstream on San Luis Creek
Farther upstream on San Luis Creek

The Bob Jones Trail winds around the San Luis Creek, which empties into the San Luis Bay at Avila Beach.  The trail also borders the Avila Bay Golf Course.  It crosses the creek at the west end of the golf course where men have a 130 yard span to hit their golf ball across the creek, and we can watch it all from the bridge.  Birds watch them every day from their stadium seats.

I wonder if they were placing bets. :)
I wonder if they were placing bets. 🙂

Once you get into the town, you only have one block to get to the beach.  When I taught 4th grade we brought our students to this beach after we took them to the San Luis Obispo Mission.  Many of our Woodlake students had never been to the beach before that time.  There is an adorable park, and an aquarium on the right as you walk up a steep block to the beach.

Want to be a pirate? Catch a dolphin?
Want to be a pirate? Catch a dolphin?

I would estimate that I walked about a mile on the beach, maybe more.  Dogs can be on the beach until 10:00, then it is for human consumption only.  Humans have a great time.  Little ones experience the water for the first time.  One mother looked like she was using the beach for her tiny tot’s modeling debut.  Birds put on their own show.  They found some raw bird meat, and one bird carried around some tail feathers in his mouth.  Most of the time I walked and got my feet wet, I was dreaming up scenes for my characters.

I got a kick out of this photo shoot. The little girl was obviously enjoying her poses. Her dress was totally inappropriate beach attire, but she was modeling.
I got a kick out of this photo shoot. The little girl was obviously enjoying her poses. Her dress was totally inappropriate beach attire, but she was modeling.

By 12:30 to 1:30 I returned to our trailer, and began writing.  It took about 2 to three hours to write a chapter.  I would break, after completing the chapter, and walk around the park for a few minutes.  I rarely ate too much dinner except maybe a bag of potato chips – yum!  Then I would write the second chapter.

The end of my interesting day came usually around 9:30 or 10:30.  There is a wonderful spa in the park that no one but me used.  It’s big enough to swim in and do exercises if you are ambitious and have no one to talk to.  I did less talking on this trip that I have probably ever done in my life.  Vince asked me if I was lonely, and surprisingly, I wasn’t.  I guess my characters kept me company.  Two of the three women are very much in love, but they are having problems, some of them pretty serious ones.  The other woman is taking stock of her life, and facing some very difficult decisions and life changes.

So that was my experience as a full-time writer.  Doesn’t it sound like fun?  It was!

Here are some more pictures of Avila Beach.