I was recently confronted with a nagging feeling that one of my stories wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized I had a Plot-Character Mismatch.
I recently read K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs. This book takes a look at structuring character arcs and the plot around them. One of the things I took from this book is the idea of centering your story around the lie that your character tells themselves.
I also listened to a podcast with Kameron Hurley and her agent Hannah Bowman, which touched on the idea that you can’t pull your punches when you push a character through their growth arc.
Combining the two, it finally hit me where I’d gone wrong.
What is it?
Imagine you have a character. That character is your protagonist and you want to push him or her to change in your story. You also have a cool idea for a plot. At first glance, the two match. The plot is creating conflicts, which drive the protagonist to finally change their ways at the climax of the story.
You start writing, but at some point you realize that the plot isn’t pushing the correct buttons for your character. You might not even realize it until you’ve finished the story. The climax doesn’t feel quite right. It’s as if you pulled your punches and the character only changed because of a little shove instead of a kick to the gut. Worse, the emotional payoff isn’t quite there.
In my story Aperture, the main character is a freedom fighter in a future where a race of alien parasites breed humans as hosts. The human protagonist is framed for murder. To prove her innocence she’s forced to ingest one of the parasites and fake being a police detective.
So far so good. The protagonist’s arc is that she learns that the world is more complicated than a simple ‘us versus them’. Walking a mile in the detective’s shoes forces her to face that things are not as black-and-white as the resistance told her. Unfortunately, the detective plot puts pressure on her in the wrong way. It fails to put her in a position where she has to choose between her old prejudices or a better way. It only forces her to choose between pushing ahead or walking away, which isn’t the same thing. The story hits the protagonist’s problem, but only strikes a glancing blow.
Another example. Star Wars Episode III is about the fall of the Galactic Republic and the fall of Anakin Skywalker. The character arc is a negative one, where Anakin falls to the dark side. This seems to match the plot of the Emperor taking over the Republic.
However, what really pushes Anakin to fall is his fear of losing his wife Amidala and their unborn child. The arc is a valid one, but it requires a radically different plot which focuses on the relationship between Anakin and Amidala. The actual plot doesn’t mesh with the arc at all, which is one of the reasons that the movie feels so disjointed.
How to fix it
The solution is a hard one. The story needs to be taken apart and reassembled in a different way. The arc needs to change, or the plot needs to. Of course, those two things form the heart of a story.
The first way to fix it, is by changing the plot. I’ve already said that the plot of Star Wars II should have revolved around Anakin and Amidala to make his arc work.
The same could be done to my story. I could throw out the detective plot and change it to one that more directly puts my protagonist in a position where she can actually choose between her prejudice or growth.
The alternative is to change the character. This can seem easier, but it means tearing out the heart of the story and replacing it with a new one. You’re basically creating a new story.
In the case of Star Wars III, this would involve Anakin falling from grace not because of his wife, but because the Jedi ask too much of him and he truly believes the Dark Side is the better way, until he is sucked in too deeply. If you look at the game Knights of the Old Republic, it offers this kind of arc (if your character chooses it).
In the case of Aperture, I would have to replace the protagonist with a different one. Since the plot pushes mostly from the ‘catch the murderer or not’ angle, it would have to be a character who has things to gain from letting the murderer go.
If a story doesn’t feel right, it might be a plot-character mismatch. Fixing it is hard, though, and means turning your story inside out. However, the end result will make it a better story.