When I talk to writing students they say that merging a good character with an interesting plot is one of the hardest parts of writing. I agree. A good character is only really as good as the situations he is written into, the experiences he gets to have, the conflicts he struggles with, and the interactions he has with other characters. That is why so many writers start with a plot they think is interesting and then try to build a character from that. The only problem with that is that then the character doesn’t have any room to grow or stretch his legs. He is confined to the plot and what has already been decided.

Let’s give you a case study of how you can take a decent character and build a story around him.

We have Fred. He is nearing his mid-thirties and has never had a long term relationship. He’s not particularly good looking, his job won’t turn any heads (he works at a travel agency – a job he uses solely to go what he calls “adventuring.”), and he doesn’t have a motivating passion other than to make it through his days and find a woman to share his life with. He currently has a fiancé and he is just about to get married to her but he is terribly afraid that he will lose her (like all his previous girlfriends) and what will that say about him as a man? Most of his friends call him a decent guy, but think he is still a bit immature. They base this on the fact that he has never gotten a career job and seems to have no desire to. Still, he is one of the first people they call when they want to go to the ballgame or bowling or take a road trip down to New York City.

This is the character we are going to start with. Fred has some problems, some flaws. That gives him room to grow. He has some things readers will be able to identify with: his lack of purpose, his desire for adventure, his fear of losing his mate, his fear about his own worth as a man. All we need now is a situation that will put Fred into a situation where he will have to grow.

The story begins like this: Fred comes home to find an old girlfriend naked in the bathtub. It just happens to be two days before his wedding. His future mother and father in law are coming over for dinner in two hours. He expects his fiancé at the house any moment. Now Fred has a conflict. Fred is going to have to do some kind of damage control to convince his fiancé that he is innocent and doesn’t know why his old girlfriend is in the tub minus her clothes. He has to defuse that situation before her parents arrive. In this situation, Fred’s character traits come into play. His fear of losing his girlfriend. His inability to handle stressful situations.

Now what happens when we throw in the fact that his old girlfriend is naked and dead in the tub? There is evidence in the bedroom that she just had sex on his bed and the bullet that killed her came from his old hunting rifle which is lying next to the tub. Do you see how easy it is to heighten the tension and create a situation that will propel the story and our character forward?

Now let’s say that Fred is just about to call the cops, thinking it is the wisest thing to do, but also the best way to convince his fiancé he had nothing to do with it, when the NSA arrives at his house looking to speak to “agent Covelli.” Fred swears he doesn’t know any Covelli until they show him a picture of his old girlfriend. Without his permission they come into the house and begin searching around while he desperately tries to stop them. Now, he has two struggles. How does he keep his fiancé and how does he persuade the NSA he had nothing to do with her death? Notice how we have both character struggle and a compelling plot?

All the time the story is unfolding in details and events, but also in the way Fred is reacting to the situation, physically and mentally. These details need to be revealed to enhance Fred’s stance as a character that readers are interested in.

Now that we have gone this far, let’s add some new elements to really get this story going. Maybe we decide that Fred and Covelli never really broke up. She just disappeared one day without saying goodbye. That fueled Fred’s fear of rejection. It also left him wondering and hoping she would come back for two years. He finally gave up, met his current fiancé and moved on. But the way the relationship ended still lingers in his mind, maybe even the hope she would one day come back. Let’s also say that one of the NSA agents finds Covelli’s briefcase with a single empty folder in it. That folder reads “The German Situation.” Stamped all over the outside are the words “classified information.”

Do you see how many struggles Fred has now? Do you see how many different directions this story could go? Do you see how many teasers there are in there that hopefully entice the reader to keep reading to find out what happens? And what other Fred characteristics have yet to come into play? His love of travel? What if Germany was the last place he traveled and also the last place he saw Covelli? Does the NSA think he is a spy? Does Fred adventurous side want to know what happened in his house just hours earlier? Does Fred want to know what “The German Situation” is? What about Fred’s fiancé? What if her parents were German. Could she be a spy? Does a thread of doubt about her love enter Fred’s mind?

The story “The German Situation” is created by building a character with the potential for conflict and then inserting events and details that force him to respond.

© Seth Crossman