One of the most common problems with the fantasy and science fiction manuscripts I read is that they are plot-driven rather than character-driven. What I mean is, the author appears to have come up with an interesting high concept, plotted out a series of events and then inserted a cast of characters to play them out. While this might seem like a logical way to write a science fiction or fantasy story, I would argue that this approach is exactly the opposite of how things should happen.
The problem with the plot-driven model is that everything is external and, therefore, shallow. Instead of feeling like real people who are allowed to learn and change and grow, characters are reduced to mere “plot points” brought on stage to serve the needs of the author rather than the story itself. As a result, the characters feel flat, and the story is cold and unconvincing.
The first step toward avoiding this error is to realize that plot should always be subservient to character transformation. In other words, in a good story, the events that unfold will always be a byproduct of character choices made under pressure. Characters are never a byproduct of story events.
Think of the movie The Matrix, for example. The protagonist, Neo, is in the driver’s seat throughout the film. At first, it’s his choice to seek the truth about the Matrix that leads him to be discovered by Morpheus, Trinity and their crew. His refusal to trust Morpheus at first gets him into all sorts of trouble. And then his decision to take the red pill changes everything. Once he’s unplugged from the Matrix, he chooses to believe that he really might be “the one” who can save the rest of humanity from the machines who oppress them. As Neo grows in power, the machines respond to this new threat by increasing their efforts to wipe out the human rebels, which results in the capture of Morpheus. Rather than flee, Neo chooses to re-enter the Matrix and rescue Morpheus, which leads to him overcoming the machines and finally realizing his true potential as “the one.”
As you can see, at every stage in the film, Neo’s choices rather than external events drive the story. Of course, at times Neo reacts to external events, such as the capture of Morpheus. But Morpheus was only captured as a result of Neo’s choice to pursue his destiny, so Neo inadvertently engineered even this situation (which is one of reasons, he goes back in to save Morpheus—he feels guilty.)
The second step toward avoiding the error of the plot-driven story is to realize that character transformation always unfolds through a predictable series of stages. Once you have a better understanding of how this change process works—and how our natural resistance to change automatically builds tension and suspense—you’ll never write a plot-driven story again.
David A. Cathcart has written, co-written and edited over 40 published books, both fiction and non-fiction.