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Losing the Plot: Giving your characters space to respond to the narrative

by Nikheel Gorolay

Last year, I finished the first draft of my novel, Bricks and Mousa. It was a personal milestone, and I was mostly happy with the results. Now, after much re-reading and professional feedback, I’ve begun the tough process of rewriting. According to the feedback I received, I had managed to strike a good balance of character and plot over most of the novel, but there were still parts where too much was happening on the surface and not enough underneath. The book, I was told, could do with more layers to further develop the inner lives of the characters. This initially surprised me, because I have never considered plotting to be one of my strengths, and so it was actually something of a compliment to hear that parts of my book had too much plot and not enough character.

When I was working on the first draft, I was acutely aware of the need to keep the narrative moving and to unsettle the characters as much as possible. I had that writing tip swirling around in my head: your characters should be put through hell, experience difficulties over the course of the narrative, and just when they think they’ve overcome absolutely everything, you throw one last thing at them. I was having fun creating sticky situations into which I would then place my characters and cackle with glee as I carried on writing to see how they would extricate themselves.

In the process, I became somewhat detached from my characters. I don’t mean that I forgot how they behaved, spoke or interacted with each other, but, in my efforts to make the plot engaging enough, I had become too concerned with the overarching details at the cost of the smaller, more personal ones. Keen to make sure that my characters reached the ends I had sketched out for them, I had forgotten to give them enough opportunities to absorb the consequences of the events in the story. After all, the reader has the benefit of turning back the pages if they have missed something, or even stopping midway to think about what they are reading, but the characters themselves don’t have any such luxury. Once a book has been started, they are fated to keep moving forward until the end. They don’t pause, breathe and reflect unless the author has allowed them to.

So when it came to rewriting, I knew I had to focus on striking a better balance between plot and character. The feedback I received gave me practical tips on how to achieve this, but I was still finding it tricky. What I needed was to be placed back in the shoes of my characters, to close the distance that had opened up between us since I finished the first draft of my manuscript. I needed to sympathise with them again, so that I knew what was at stake for them and could allow their thoughts to come through into my writing. I needed to inhabit their minds again by getting a taste of the sort of medicine I had subjected them to. And I got it.

Let me explain. Earlier this summer, I moved abroad as part of a degree exchange programme, and was looking forward to spending several months studying and living in a different part of the world. Unfortunately, things did not go to plan and soon I was arranging my journey back to the UK. The specifics of what happened are not that interesting, but I spent most of my time trying to put out fires. Each of my days was planned around tackling a problem, and no sooner had I solved it than I was presented with another one. It felt like I was always losing, like the odds were stacked against me. I was like a fictional character trapped in a narrative that I had not written or imagined for myself, but was still doomed to enact, one plot twist after another.

It was frustrating, but when I sat down to write, I realised it was just what I needed. Being stuck in a cycle of dealing with problems that had to be resolved in order for me to progress reminded me of what my characters were going through. Like me, my characters had something they wanted to achieve or gain by the end of their story, and the plot points within the story were the means by which they would get there. Even if they did not get what they wanted in the end, the journey to that point would have nonetheless altered them in a meaningful way.

Just as the problems I had to deal with were not significant in themselves, but rather how the entire experience prompted me to reconsider what it was I was seeking to achieve academically, it is the internal development of characters that, in my opinion at least, are what makes for a good story and the reason why our favourite characters stay with us long after we have finished their stories. Personally speaking, I rarely remember what actually happened in a book, but rather recall what the characters were like and how they changed over the course of the story.

Plot isn’t everything. I knew that when I started writing my book, but after many months of trying to work out the finer details of the story, it seemed like a lot. Now, having entirely changed a large part of my novel and feeling happier with its relevance to the story I am trying to tell, I’m happy to say that I have lost the plot, or at least some of it. With subsequent redrafts I’m sure I’ll lose some more of it, or at least pace it better so that I can allow my characters to breathe slightly too. I’ve still got a long way to go, but in the end, if I manage to tell a story that is memorable more for its characters than its events, then I’ll consider my goal achieved.

About the author

Nikheel Gorolay has had poetry and book reviews published in SABLE LitMag and is a member of the Inscribe writer development programme run by Peepal Tree Press. Bricks and Mousa is his first novel, inspired by his life as part of the East African Asian diaspora and growing up in a home that has been a regular building site over the years.

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