Fashioning Characters Based on Plot and Premise

When I think about the many novels I’ve written, I realize I don’t always start with a plot idea. Sometimes a topic or theme intrigues me, or I’ll have an image of a character in the throes of a moral dilemma.

I remember reading about how C. S. Lewis came up with his Narnia series. He had a picture in his mind of a faun carrying a parcel and an umbrella through a snowy wood. From there, the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe sprang into existence.

The novel I’m currently writing, a supernatural thriller called Lightning Man, also was sparked by a picture in my head. I saw a man at the top of a mountain, his arms outstretched in a kind of messianic surrender to the heavens, willing lightning to strike him for the tenth time, intending to stop a terrorist by sacrificing his life as he grips the bad guy. From there I had to ask a lot of questions to find my story, and I encourage you to do the same with the ideas that excite you.

I wove a complex plot around that character and climactic moment I saw in my head (it’s taken me a couple of years, but it’s all in place now). But it all started with a picture of a nebulous character.

For my novel Someone to Blame, I started with a word or concept: blame. I wanted to explore the ways people blame themselves and others and the damage and hurt blame causes. From that germ of an idea, a plot developed—a story about a family who’ve suffered the loss of two sons and moved to a new town hoping to start over, only to get drawn into a heavy drama that mires the town in blame and subsequent danger.

In my conversations with numerous best-selling authors, I’ve learned that their story ideas are sparked in a myriad of ways.

Though ideas for stories begin in different ways, all roads lead to one key question: Who is this story about and what is that character’s journey?

And to formulate the answer, we need to  brainstorm four key elements.

Whether I’m teaching about novel structure, plotting, laying out scenes, or crafting characters, I always swing back around to foundational story structure. The four basic pillars of novel construction are protagonist with a goal, conflict with high stakes, concept with a kicker, and theme with heart. These four elements need to meld holistically as you develop your story. They are equally important and each informs the other. If you’re not familiar with these pillars, consider taking my mini course offered in my online school.

Premise Is Key

Your genre may inform some of the requisite characteristics of your cast of characters, but even within the bounds of genre you can still develop fresh, unique characters. Your readers deserve those elements of originality, so spend time on your characters and resist the default mode (stereotypes). And really, what’s more important is your premise.

Why is that? Can’t a great character alone sustain reader interest in a story? No, it can’t. At some point in your creative process, you have to come up with something that happens to and with your character. Something compelling. Something that compels the reader to want to follow this character on a journey of sorts.

How does premise come into play here? Your premise lays out the situation your protagonist has to tackle. If you’re writing a novel about a group of scientists that are trapped in an orbiting space station and have to find a way to survive for three years before rescue comes, you first think about the skills and expertise those characters need to have. Without those skills, those characters wouldn’t be there. And believability is crucial in a story, whether a real-life one or a fantasy.

I wish I didn’t have to say this, because isn’t it obvious? Yet, I see so many characters thrust into roles that they are wholly unqualified for. Characters cast as cops or doctors or investigators that have no smarts, no skills, no training. Characters who are presented as top litigators who can hardly utter an intelligent sentence.

While the real world does shock us with the level of incompetence and immaturity we see, for example, in our political realm, unless we are doing a spoof or sick comedy, it’s best to stick with the expected. It’s just more believable to have competent characters doing things that require expertise.

In the movie Taken, the father who tracks down his daughter’s kidnapper in France is a man perfectly suited for the task. But if Bryan Mills was a shy, fearful CPA instead of a former CIA operative with serious weapons and investigative chops, not to mention contacts in law enforcement in France, the entire premise would collapse. Our stories must be believable—which means our characters must be as well!

Ask questions of each of your characters. If you have a female captain of a space station, and she’s your main character in your suspenseful drama—the one who, in essence, saves the crew by her wits—she’s going to have some smarts.

It’s great to have some really cool characters, but that won’t get you very far.

At some point in your brainstorming, you will need to come up with a premise. Thinking up a terrific character, maybe even in an exciting situation, such as my lightning man at the top of the mountain, is just the start. It certainly isn’t enough to ensure you’ll have a great novel, movie, or play.

And you can’t really fill in your cast of characters until you have a strong concept based on a strong premise.

If you haven’t studied The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and Layer Your Novel, you might not be familiar with these terms. So let me briefly lay this out for you.

A premise proposes a situation that must be dealt with. A comet is heading to earth and it must be stopped. A ring of power has been discovered and it must be destroyed before an evil lord uses it to great harm. A woman is in love with a man who doesn’t notice her so she must find a way to get his attention.

Your protagonist deals with the situation by pursuing a goal—the plot goal for the story. Unless you are writing an epic family saga or fictional biography, a novel (or play or movie) will cover a short period of time showing your hero going after that goal, which is resolved at the climax of your story (and after which the story quickly ends).

This is story structure in a nutshell, and if you aren’t well versed in it, I highly encourage you to make time to learn it before getting too deep into your writing. I recommend Michael Hauge’s best seller: Writing Screenplays That Sell. Yes, even if you’re writing a novel, this book is for you.

Your concept with a kicker is the unique, intriguing story you come up with to show your protagonist pursuing that goal amid high stakes and conflict, with a strong theme or moral dilemma at its heart.

Whether you start with a character, a concept, a premise, a theme, or some other element that sparks your desire to write a story, you need to flesh out these four pillars to some extent before you can fully create your cast.

This is because you can’t build on a nonexistent foundation. Your cast of characters must emerge out of the premise and plot. If you think up a group of random characters you like, but you don’t have a clear purpose for them to be thrown together, you won’t have a cohesive story. If you don’t have strong conflict and high stakes, you’ll have a lot of happy people in happyland doing meaningless, boring things, and readers will drift away.

Yes, great characters can be riveting all by themselves. K. M. Weiland says “When characters are vibrant and well-drawn, they enter that beautiful cycle of creating plot. . . . even in more literary-leaning books . . .  the characters are vibrant enough to create a forward-moving plot out of even mundaneness such as farm chores.” Very true. But if all we show in our novel is a family doing farm chores day in and out, well . . .  you get my point.

Key point: focus on the story! Your story is about one character pursuing a goal. Everything must orbit around that. If a secondary character starts leaving orbit and is heading to Mars, she is not helping. Reel her back in. Each character either helps or hinders the protagonist on her way to her goal.

So take some time to hone that premise. Be sure you have a riveting one. Brainstorm the stakes and conflict so they’re sky high. It might help to use my 12 Key Pillars workbook, which has hundreds of brainstorming questions and checklists to help you flesh out your pillars.

When you’ve got these elements solidly structured, you’ll be ready to populate your story with just the right type and number of characters to do justice to it.

How does your plot and premise determine your key characters? Share some thoughts in the comments.


NEW! Announcing my new online course: Your Cast of Characters

Learn all about creating the perfect cast for your novel in this new online video course. The course launches MAY 1, 2020, but you can enroll now and get $50 OFF the regular price by using coupon code EARLYBIRD. Sign up HERE at my online school. Remember: you CANNOT access any of the modules until May 1. I’ll be sending you an email at that time to let you know the doors are open!

Your characters are the heart of your story, so be ready to learn a lot of great tips. BONUS! Included in your course are interviews with best-selling authors, who discuss their process of how they come up with the best characters for their stories. You can’t find these videos anywhere else but in my new course.

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Here’s some of what you’ll learn in this extensive course:

  • What the basic types of characters are and what roles they play in a story
  • How your plot and premise inform the characters you develop
  • How to determine if a character is essential to your plot or just “filler”
  • What kind of supportive characters does your specific story need and how you can determine that
  • How to create characters that act as symbols
  • What archetypes are and how you can utilize them to create fantastic characters
  • How incidental characters can make or break your story
  • Why understanding character motivation is paramount

These video modules feature numerous excerpts from novels, movie clips, and deep instruction. In addition, you are given assignments to help you develop a great cast of characters which you can download and do over and over as needed. Be prepared to learn!

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  1. I’ve heard a lot about the premise lately and it’s really helpful. If I can’t describe my story with a short premise, then I probably need to reconsider my story.

    All my stories revolve around one character. So my premise is basically throwing things at him and seeing how he handles them. I don’t throw a bunch of stuff in one story. Just one big problem per story. The premise for the story I’m working on now: A young warrior wants to save the life of the enemy who once saved his life, but he must betray his duty to his father to do it.

  2. An informative read! Your point about characters having the skills for the job ie

    ‘Ask questions of each of your characters. If you have a female captain of a space station, and she’s your main character in your suspenseful drama—the one who, in essence, saves the crew by her wits—she’s going to have some smarts.’

    I’ve read over and over again that characters need to change. Could the character mentioned above start off fearful and timid and because of what she is asked to do she becomes bold and courageous?
    The reason I ask is that I have purposely done this with my main character so that she changes ? I have read so many books on plot and structure so have religiously stuck to it. Have to admit sometimes it doesn’t feel like her true self and I’m imposing something on her to prove her change?
    Apologies for rambling!

    1. Yes! You can always (and often it’s best) to start with your hero struggling with his persona. If you show your character unhappy with herself in some way, wanting to change or feeling inner conflict due to her flaws, the events in the story should help her grow and learn and change. Characters root for that kind of change.

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