Worry not, no personal woes here; we’re plotting troubles, decisions and consequences in fiction. Another guest lecturer on Sanderson’s BYU Creative Writing course, author Brandon Mull sets out his approach to character and plot.
Author of the Fablehaven and Dragonwatch series, the personable and self-effacing Mull has a lot to say about the writing life.
“If you’re a writer and you’re a nice person, that’s two strikes against you.”
“I’m never trying to do what’s wrong – and I find ways.”
Relatability, Wants, Obstacles and Relationships
Described in a largely improvised and highly entertaining guest lecture, Mull’s characters are shaped by:
Can we relate to their situation, problems and dilemmas
This is a familiar writing prop; what does your character think they want and how does it differ from what they need?
How does the character react to obstacles in their way? How do they cope with struggle, crisis, and failure?
His fourth dimension is relationships. As the characters care more about each other, the more the reader cares about the characters. At least, they should. If the characters don’t care about each other, it’s a pretty dismal fictional world. Why should we?
With these in mind, Mull advocates plotting in a series of troubles, decisions and consequences.
Loading The ‘Try-Fail’ structure
Most novels have a repeating ‘try-fail’ structure before the eventual success. In Mull’s process, he presents character with a cycle of troubles or obstacles, decides how to overcome them, then has to deal with the consequences.
Trouble: lay it on; trouble and conflict is the basis of story. Without trouble and conflict, there is no story.
Decisions: Characters have to act. Proactive or reactive, they have to do something. Moreover, the decision has to be true to the character. They can’t just abandon their best friend they’ve been helping for seventeen chapters.
Consequences: decisions have consequences and these have to be honest and believable; no ‘ambush cats’ in Mull’s thinking. Returning a library book late doesn’t call down a meteor strike.
Characters have to earn good consequences; Mull forbids ‘deus ex machina’ turnarounds. A dragon can’t appear just to toast the Dark Lord at the finale. Trailer-park girl can’t just win the state lottery. Jane Eyre can’t turn out to be a secret heiress. Oops, sorry Charlotte, you blew it.
It’s useful to consider how decisions and consequences affect the relationships. A wrong decision can affect relationships with long-lasting consequences, especially when one character’s decision impacts on another’s.
“You go to the conference, then we miss our vacation.”
“You punched my horrible boss. Now I don’t get my promotion.”
“You drugged my tea.”
“I saved you from certain death on a suicide mission.”
“That wasn’t your choice to make.”
We’ve all had that one, right?