How to Plot a Character Driven Book in 3 Easy Steps

Theme & Premise: Or How to Plot a Character Driven Book in 3 Easy Steps

It is said that there are two types of writers: plotters and seat of the pants writers (or fly into the mist writers). Obviously the majority of us fall somewhere in between. I’m a serious plotter, one of those scene-by-scene plotters who knows primarily everything that will happen in the rough draft. But don’t let that frighten you pansters away. These tools can be used no matter what type of writer you are. I happen to think that using them BEFORE you write is more efficient, but not everyone works that way. Well, I promised you 3 steps, so let’s get on with it.

Step 1 – THEME. “Now, wait a minute!” some of you are yelling. “How can I know my theme before I’ve written the book?” Obviously you don’t have to, but it can make your writing a lot more focused and cut down on your wandering into dark alleys.

To define your theme, you need to know what theme is, so what is theme? It’s fairly simple, we’ve just been made to believe that it’s more difficult. All you need to do is fill in this blank, “This book is about ______________.” The trick is to narrow it down, don’t put an entire blurb in that blank. This isn’t a pitch. This is just for your benefit. So keep it narrowed and focused. Think about your idea, your characters, your finished book (if you’re working that way) and dig deep. What is it about? Theme, to me, is generally a one-word concept, the basic emotional conflict of the book. So you could say “this book is about TRUST,” or “this book is about REDEMPTION,” or even “this book is about RESPONSIBILITY.”

But how do you come up with a theme out of thin air, especially if you’re doing this with a book you haven’t even written yet? Think about your hot buttons, the issues that you continue to explore book after book. Take a look at books you’ve written or even books on your keeper shelf – they all have themes and chances are the themes are similar. Once you’re aware of these hot button themes, it makes defining the themes in your own books easier since you’ll tend to gravitate to the same things each time you go to write. I gravitate to themes of “self-acceptance” and “responsibility”.

So now you have your theme, let’s move on to Step 2 – PREMISE/CHARACTER LESSON. Every book has a premise. This is your hypothesis, or what you want to prove or disprove in the course of your book. These often (but not always) sound like clichés, like “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” or “home is where the heart it.” But aside from your book having a premise, Deb Dixon, in her book “GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict” says that each character should have their own premise as well. This is basically your character’s lesson.

This is the biggie for me when I’m doing my prewriting. Until I know this, then I don’t have a grasp on my characters and until I know my characters, I can’t plot.

Character lesson or premise is just what it sounds like: what does your character need to learn? Do they need to learn to trust others or themselves? Or perhaps they need to learn they do deserve love. This character lesson is how I develop my character’s GMC, both internal and external. To give an example, with my last historical, my heroine needed to learn that her past didn’t need to dictate her future – that was her premise or character lesson, whatever you want to call it.

Which brings me right into Step 3 – CHARACTER ARC. Once I knew my heroine’s lesson, her arc became clear. I knew that if she needed to learn this then obviously she was allowing her past to dictate her future – so I created her backstory and made her a fallen woman. This was her big bag of crud, so to speak, the stuff she carried on her back that prevented her from achieving her internal goal.

Now comes the plotting.

So you have a character who is at Point A (believing her past dictates her future) and needs to get to Point B (accepting her past and allowing herself a future). The character arc is the plot of a character driven story. Let me repeat that, the character arc is the plot of a character driven story. Our jobs as writers is to figure out how to get her from Point A to Point B. You do this by forcing the character to face her past again and again until she either has to grow and change or forsake her internal goal. Naturally because we’re writing romance, she will change and accomplish her internal goal.

That’s it. That’s the 3 part plan. Simple, right? Not always. So how do you use it? For those of you who are pansters, this is all stuff you can use during revisions. Get that book in front of you and after you’ve read it through, ask yourself what the book is about. What are you trying to say with this story? Then look at your hero and heroine and figure out their character lessons. This generally goes hand and hand with your theme. For example, if your theme is forgiveness, then your hero’s lesson might be that he has to forgive and forget. Once you have your lesson you can go back to each of your scenes and ensure that you’re forcing your hero to deal with his lesson so that he has ample opportunities to grow and change.

As for you plotters out there, I recommend using this from the very beginning. Focusing your story from the beginning will save you revisions. Don’t panic if you can’t figure out your theme or any of these other elements. You can do as the pansters do and go back after your story is finished and revise using these tools. Once you get the hang of them you will be able to use them as plotting tools.

Let’s face it, writing will never be easy. (And if it is, then you’re not working hard enough. J ) This is why most of us read every craft book on the market and buy all the tapes at RWA conferences, to find tools to add to our toolboxes that will make writing … well, not necessarily easy, but easier and more efficient. For me, these steps have made the difference between me completing books and having a box full of uncompleted manuscripts.

Robyn Ratliff admits proudly to being a craft junkie and serious plotter. She’s been writing … well, for a long time and is currently dividing her time between writing her newest historical romance and Agent Quest. A member of San Antonio Romance Authors since 1996, she currently serves as President and Webmaster.

Copyright © 2007. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.

Share this page