The Play’s The Thing: How to Let Characters Drive the Story

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

-William Shakespeare

I have heard a lot of conflicting writing advice in my years. But one big conflict that I’m still having trouble getting over is the issue of plot versus character. In the past, I was very character-driven. However, in trying to fix myself, I have now leaned way too hard on plot and keep getting feedback about my characters feeling more like chess pieces.

So how the heck do you resolve this issue? When a character takes over the story, the plot basically becomes like a black hole, revolving all around them and dragging everything else along with it. When the plot is driving the story, the characters feel boring.

As William Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “The play’s the thing.”

I used to do theater in high school and college. Even though I don’t have a lot of theater experience, I still learned a lot from memorizing monologues and acting out scenes in class. When you’re acting you (quoting Lizzie Bennet Diaries here) “open yourself up to inhabiting another person or letting another person inhabit you.” Actors put a lot of thought into embodying the character they play, no matter how small the role may be.

Emotion is really the driving force behind a good story. The reason why a majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have worked is because there are always emotional stakes behind all the action scenes. We care for the characters. The same applies to My Hero Academia. It’s a series with a perfect balance of plot/action and character-driven moments and you slowly start to see the characters develop in between all the fights or even as the action is happening.

Basically, creating a novel is basically like putting on a one-man show where you play all the characters at once. No matter how crazy it may seem, every character you create is a part of you. Some characters will feel more like you than others, but every character comes from something inside you, even if it’s the worst part of you.

What does that all mean when it comes to plotting a story?

Plot is created by decisions the characters make and the consequences that result from those actions. You might have the characters react to things at first, but there needs to be a point where the characters take initiative.

How the heck can we figure out how to make sure our characters drive the story without getting lost?

Aside from taking an acting class, I recommend looking into musicals and studying Shakespeare plays. The most memorable musicals have character-driven moments that still move the plot along. I think of musicals like Hamilton, WickedThe Great Comet of 1812, and even the Heathers musical. Check out this essay as to why:

 

I hope that you take some time to get in touch with your inner actor.

The Patterns of Affinity in the Autistic Mind

So my dad was channel surfing through the news stories and my ear catches a sound bite about a man who has an autistic son who learned to communicate through watching Disney movies. As I watched the story, I saw a lot of myself in the autistic child, who I learned is now 23 years old.

The news piece about Ron Suskind’s son mentioned something called “affinity therapy” in which role-playing is used to develop social skills. As I thought about all of the things that I obsessed over as a child and the things I obsess over now, I realized that I did something along those lines as a kid. And like Owen, I was drawn to a certain type of character as I grew up.

My first obsession was Sailor Moon. I had some episodes on VHS (that’s the thing they used before DVDs to watch things, millenial readers) that I would watch over and over. The episode that I remember most of all is the episode in which Usagi/Serena is revealed to be Princess Serenity. Up until that point, I had no idea of any sort of princess, but what really got my attention was Usagi/Serena didn’t want to be a princess after Mamoru/Darien was taken away from her. In the past, I watched heroes who went into danger unafraid of anything. This was the first time that I ever saw a hero who was afraid and expressed her fear. As a child, I would watch that particular tape over and over again and sometimes pretend that I was a Sailor Scout. I also pretended to be things from other anime shows, but Sailor Moon was basically the start of it.

Anime continued to be an obsession up until my high school days, when I discovered a novel that changed my life forever. Pride and Prejudice featured Elizabeth Bennet, a young woman who was a lot like myself at the time: outspoken, witty, and a bit presumptuous. She wasn’t afraid to admit that she was wrong and to change, which was very different from the chick lit and young adult novels I read that had a lot of self-centered characters. But what really drew me to her was that she had her vulnerable moments and admitted her fears out loud. This was later shown in the YouTube adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which became my obsession during my last year of college.

Although I never pretended to be Elizabeth Bennet, I did some theatre in high school and college and the roles I liked most were the outspoken, talkative, young female characters. Theatre became a concentrated form of “affinity therapy” because I was always playing a part in some shape or form. The best role I ever had was when I got cast in my friend’s production of The Boys Next Door. I played the role of Shiela, the love interest of Norman. Like the most of the others, my character was someone with special needs who lived in a group home. In spite of her disability, she was able to find love. And although I am no longer acting, a good percentage of my brain space has memorized entire episodes from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which includes costume theatre segments that had me in stitches.

One particular experience of affinity therapy happened shortly after I started obsessing over Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The character I loved most was a super strong blonde character who had a vulnerable side that I could relate to, who hid that same vulnerability because it didn’t fit with the expectations others had of this particular character and yet he/she had such a dynamic personality that I rooted for him/her and wanted him/her to have a happy ending after all the heartbreak and pain he/she went through.

But wait, you ask, are you talking about Spike or Buffy? Yes.

My Buffy obsession eventually led to me cosplaying Buffy, meeting the guy who played Spike at a convention, and writing fanfiction, all of which I think fall under the affinity therapy umbrella.

All the characters I ended up loving had courage and showed their vulnerable side to the world, even when they didn’t know they were doing so. I haven’t really had the courage to do the same until now.

I want to post about my Asperger’s Syndrome more often and share my experiences of being on the autism spectrum. Lately it seems that poetry has been the best way for me to express that.

I wrote a poem back in middle school and my teacher, years later, shared that poem with some parents of autistic kids. These parents apparently saw their children’s mind in my poem, which was about feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere because my interests and ideals were different from everyone else’s. If a poem I wrote all those years ago could touch someone now, I have to keep going at it so that I can reach out and let other kids, teens, and young adults with autism and Asperger’s know that they’re not alone.

Tonight, when I was taking a walk, I watched a thunderstorm in the distance. It inspired me to write the following poem. I hope you enjoy it because there is probably going to be more to come.

 

Primal Instinct

 

Lightning dances across the sky

In a show of beauty and danger

It dances to the symphony of crickets and frogs

Mixed with the cacophony of dog barks and car horns

And in the middle of this song is the rhythm of a runner’s feet

Pounding the pavement as they run nearby

Close enough to the storm to watch,

But far enough to be safe from shock.

The primal instinct of running is fear,

And yet these feet do not run away from the storm

They dance a fine line between risk and safety

Knowing that home isn’t far away