Balancing Character, Plot, and Setting

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and I see I haven’t posted anything here in a while.  That’s not the end of the world or anything, but I made a commitment to keep posting here, even if it’s only once a week or so.  So why haven’t I posted?  Other than the usual busy-with-life-family-multiple-jobs thing, I’ve been working on revising a short story.  I thought it would only take me a week or so, but here I am, two weeks into the planned one-week revision, with still a long way to go.  Sounds like what happens when you renovate your house or garden!

So what happened?  Turns out the story needed a lot more work than I expected.  I’ve basically been tearing it apart sentence by sentence and rebuilding it.  This is a little new for me.  While I expected to cut/revise 50% or more of the words in my first draft—this is usually about par for me—I’ve kept almost nothing of this particular story.  After I started digging into the draft, it quickly became apparent that the story was too “superficial.”  It didn’t dig deep enough into the main characters or their problems, which has robbed the story of what should be its emotional core.  And this is a story that must resonate at the emotional level because it’s not a plot-driven piece; it’s more of a character study.

While all stories need plot, character, and setting, I’ve learned over the years that not all stories need the same level of development for each.  In fact, for some types of stories, I think too much development of one area can actually hurt it because it bucks against reader expectations.  How many hard-boiled detective or superhero stories have deeply developed characters?  Not many—the are usually characters interesting and serve their purpose, but most readers are in it for the plot .  Of course, I don’t deny that a “routine” detective story could be elevated with great character development; what I’m saying is it’s not necessarily needed to meet the conventions of that (sub)genre, and could actually make the story harder to sell (assuming that’s a significant objective).

One of the things I try to do when writing a story is to think about what kind of story I might have.  For me, this hinges on the primary conflict: is it an external or internal conflict?  An internal conflict generally necessitates deeper character development to pull it off in a satisfying way.  Conversely, I find that a primary conflict that is external often can get away with a less developed character (notice I say less developed, which doesn’t mean undeveloped), but needs a strong plot to be effective.  One type isn’t inferior, and like many readers, I enjoy both kinds of stories.  I’ve even published examples of both—for example, see “Thief of Futures” for a plot-driven story and “The Schrödinger War” for a character-driven one.

So the story I’m revising now is a “character” story.  I tend to find these harder to write than “plot” stories, but also a lot more rewarding when I actually manage to pull it off, which in my opinion doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.  For this one to work, I’ll need to dig deeper into my main character and mine every bit of loneliness and desperation I can find.  That cane be mentally exhausting, and it will take time, but if I do it effectively, I’ll have a very good story on my hands.  Wish me luck.

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About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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