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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sauls

Characters Are the story



Characters are the story. I hear writers discuss the importance of plot, conflict, tension, setting the scene, etc. It is true all of those things are important, but without characters none of that stuff means anything. It is like walking into a vacant house. It doesn't become a home until you add furniture, pictures of little Timmy and his soccer team, and throw in a few houseplants. In other words without people living in it a house is just another building.



The plot is just the route you take through the story. Think about it like this. You have a main character. We'll call her Grandma. She is 70, lives alone with her dachshund Plymouth and is very into fitness since her poor deceased husband, that was obese, died from heart disease. She power walks, does yoga, and likes to garden. Perhaps off of this main character, you dream up some interesting secondary characters, like children that are married with families of their own, a mailman nearing retirement that has a crush on grandma, and a neighbor that harasses her because he hates dogs and keeps finding poop in his front yard.


It wasn't me dude I swear.

THE STORY is Grandma's house; like all houses, it is a three-dimensional object. There are many different kinds of houses, but Grandma lives in a giant 2 story building with natural stone, a tile roof, and a view of the Thames river. She raised three children, so this house is full of Grandma's memories. She has lived in this house for 40 years, so this place has all sorts of things that point to her history and the histories of various secondary characters that used to live here.



THE PLOT is the route grandma takes through the story to get to the result at the end. In this case, I've made the story a literal house to demonstrate how that works. Grandma's goal is to get from the mailbox she visited after her morning power walk to the backyard where her garden is. But instead of following the path around the outside and going through the gate, some complication forces her into the house, intending to walk through and go out the back door. Another difficulty occurs, causing Grandma to do something meaningful in the upstairs bathroom. She heads back to the stairs, and Plymouth demands her attention, and so on. So basically, Grandma ends up traveling all over her house, upstairs and down, to handle all sorts of mishaps and problems until sigh she finally makes it outside to the garden and works on that weed pulling that needs tending.



You may never get to see the entirety of Grandma's house just as you may not be able to show every detail of any given story. It would be tedious to show it to the reader in that great of detail. But this home will be lived in. It isn't some vacant empty box. It should have three dimensional depth and detail into the life of the character and reveal all of her problems as you take the reader along the zig zagging path of the plot. It should have aspects within that impact all of the senses including the reader's sense of intuition. The plot should leave some unanswered questions about Grandma. There are unexplored rooms and strange details that leave the readers wondering. Like why does Grandma have a picture of her much younger self posing with a group of aborigines in the desert hanging on her wall? Why does her upstairs bathroom smell like men's cologne? Why she Grandma, an American, living in the UK? It is OK to leave some of those mysteries unsolved because they may have no bearing on this story, but they point to a character with a real history.

THEME is the next essential concern. It is what your MC learns from the story or how it changed them. In the beginning, Grandma wonders why her tomatoes won't bear fruit. She is thinking about doing away with the garden altogether. Throughout the hijinks within the story, she remembers that she loved gardening because it is something she and her deceased husband used to do together. Now it makes her sad because it reminds her of her loneliness and mortality instead of invoking happy memories. She convinces her kids to come and help her with it. So the story ends with a family in the garden together, building new happy memories and helping Grandma through this challenging phase of her life. I hope that clarifies a few things for you. The better you understand the fundamentals of writing, the better your stories will become.

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