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Write on, Wednesday: Susan Elizabeth Phillips Talks about Character-Driven Plot

By Leslie Lindsay

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a Spanish writer, depicted with the tools of the trade. (image retrieved fromWikipedia, 5.30.12)

I will admit that I am not one to fall in love with a romance novel.  It’s not that I don’t like romance–I do, it’s just that I would rather be the heroine than read about her.  Who wouldn’t, right?  But, I can appreciate a good writer when I see one…or know one…or take one of her workshops at a conference.  Which is exactly what I did about a month ago.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips may be tiny, but she is big on ideas and big on being sassy.  I mean that in a good way, SEP.  She has a wit about her that is infectious.  And if you have ever read her books, you will soon come to realize that she talks just like her characters–razor-sharp, funny, and a little saucy.  She had us in stitches several times with her personal stories.  And stories, are after all, what makes us write.

In “Drawing Plot from Character,” SEP talks about the idea of plot driving a story.  Well, that’s all good and well…the plot has these twists and turns that the author shows in her choice of words, character development, etc.  But that isn’t all we remember about a book, is it?  No.  We don’t just remember, the first-middle-and-last part of a story, we remember the characters. 

Here’s what SEP believes makes a memorable character/protagonist:

  • The arc of the character
  • Is she a survivor?  In what way(s)?
  • Does he have strong convictions?  What are they?
  • Is the character flawed in some way?  Does s/he have room to grow?
  • Show a unique sense of humor which resonates with you the author and with your readers

Your end goal as a writer/author is to create characters your readers will care about.  Here’s how:

  • Make them sympathetic (not perfect, because that’s a little boring)
  • Make them realistic
  • Allow them to develop and grow throughout the story…we readers need to see the journey
  • Make sure the characters are well-motivated, that is the actions of the character are consistent with who they are
  • Give your characters a strong, individual voice
  • Keep their hearts pure
  • Don’t use your characters to manipulate plot!  Give them solid reasons to do what they do–you must honor the character.

Now, the workshop part of the presentation was to jot down a list of things that would make up these characters…go ahead, do it yourself if you want to get your writing wheels all greased up.

  1. The over-extended career woman
  2. The stay-at-home mom starting over after her hubby leaves her
  3. The prim Northeasterner who leaves her home to teach school in the west (historical fiction)

Now, here’s my favorite exercise from this workshop:  list everything your character has in her purse.  You can do this for one of the characters above, or pull a character from your own WIP (work-in-progress).

My character has these things in her Vera Bradley:

  • Wipes and Goldfish crackers
  • Pill organizer
  • Half-eaten granola bar
  • Cell Phone
  • Notebook and pen
  • Family photo
  • condom
  • $20 cash
  • A dog-eared school registration form for the local elementary school…it’s late

Now, if you go back and look at all of these items, you might be able to visualize who this person is.  Hummm….she’s a mom?  But is she old?  Why does she have a pill organizer?  Could she be on lots of meds?  A health problem?  A condom?  What’s that about?!  So, you see how the contents of your character’s purse can get you to develop some plot?

This may be just the exercise you need to get out of writer’s block.  Write on, Wednesday!


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