Jack Shephard vs the plot monster

Jack Shephard (played by Matthew Fox) on ABC's drama series LOST.

Is your character more important than your plot? Jack Shephard (played by Matthew Fox) on ABC's series Lost.

As I mentioned in a previous post (“Lying on the couch: A conversation with myself“), I usually talk to my main characters quite a bit before beginning the writing process.

It’s not easy for me to put aside character building in favor of story building. The main character has always been my stepping off point for building a new short story or novel. I like setting down the backstory on my character before I begin.

For this reason, I really loved the ABC television series Lost. Each week, we were able to delve into the backstory of a new character, further fleshing out the survivors of Oceanic flight 815.

You might think the writers of the hit television show had a good understanding of all their characters, certainly their main ones, before they started filming the pilot episode. You’d be wrong.

As you may know, the handsome doctor Jack (played by Matthew Fox) became the de facto leader of the survivors on the show. What you may not know is that when the show was in its infancy, the writers had killed Jack during the pilot episode. But Fox’s portrayal of the likable character convinced the executives (and in turn the writers) to keep him alive. They knew they had a good character that the audience could root for.

The decision to keep Jack ended up driving many changes in the series. First and foremost, Kate (Evangeline Lilly) was no longer going to be the leader. Jack was. Second of all, it created the often-bemoaned love triangle between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer (Josh Holloway). By the end of the series, we realize the show was really about Jack’s journey.

When I started writing my latest story, I knew very little about my main character. This was — if you’ll pardon the expression — “out of character” for me. I needed to put plot first, because I was writing for an upcoming anthology and the story’s idea seemed more important than the main character.

So this time, I decided to let the story drive my character. The result gave me three good pieces of insight.

  1. Your main character can be defined to the reader by how he/she reacts to elements (e.g. characters, events) in the story. As with Jack, sometimes it just takes one heroic action to make a character likable.
  2. The actions of the character are equally important in progressing the story. If the character isn’t willful enough to move the story forward, he/she shouldn’t be your main character.
  3. The story must drive change in your main character. If your character doesn’t grow as a result of his/her experience, then it wasn’t a good story.

I’m pleased with the story that I wrote (and the fact that I cranked out a 4,000-word story over the course of a weekend). More importantly, I’m pleased that a great character emerged from the story, where none had originally been.

So, the lesson here is to listen to your characters carefully, but don’t be afraid to let your story change them. The best character you create might be a minor character you had intended to kill off.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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