I’ve asked my friend Sharon to write a short article about plotting, because she plots from character as opposed to story. I wanted to provide you with an alternative means of breaking story and beginning the outline. Ultimately, every writer must find the process that best taps their natural gifts. Here’s what Sharon says:
I start every story with character. Who somebody is and what do they want to do or not do. What their weakness or flaw is and what they are willing to do to change it (if they can recognize it as a flaw at all).
I’m not conscious of doing this but there it is, in every process that I resort to at the beginning of each project. Anne Lamott writes in BIRD BY BIRD that “plot grows out of character.” Only after the writer understands his or her character, what that person will do or will care about doing soon will the rest of the story (yes, I mean plot) become clear.
It isn’t an easy process. Starting from plot or a situation sets your goals down concretely. You have a situation. (A romantic comedy that can be summed up in a sentence: an anorexic falls in love with the winner of an eating contest. Yes, I’m being silly, but you get the point.) The problem is that situations are often just the first act. Starting from character is trickier simply because character is amorphous. (But in the end, it might be more helpful.) The story can take its directorial cues only from the people that you are writing about. Conversely, Lamott writes that characters should not “serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up.” (Time and again as a reader, I have read many scripts that were all concept and no character — which might make the most fantastic concept movie seem generic and forgettable.)
So, I start at the very beginning. What does my character want? What does she care about most in the world? What is at stake for her? From that some small plot ideas might start to form. (Or, not. Let’s not pretend that this doesn’t feel like teeth-pulling most of the time.) Usually this is a period of writing (longhand or typed) endlessly without any real self-editing. Soon, I usually find the toe-hold in the story. With that comes some structure. I like to know the end of act one and two. If it is a great day, I will know the mid-points. And, yes, I try and do this with all the main characters. Even more so for the antagonists. The more I know about them and what makes them interesting the better.