Tommy’s freaking out.  He left a  bouquet of flowers to surprise his girlfriend, but he’s worried that some wild giraffe or wolf or leprechaun is going to steal them or eat them or something.

And somehow this relates to a good question from listener Christopher.  Here is the traditional Google Voice butchering of the voicemail that Christopher left us:

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 9.21.05 PM

There’s a lot going on in Christopher’s question, so we break it down all kind of ways on this episode of Fiction School.  How do you make a plot meaningful to a character?  How do you make readers care about a character?  What makes a subplot key to a plot? What do you do when characters want to do things differently than the plot you’ve got planned out?


  • The audience has to care about a character, so the best way to care about them–the best way to care about Tommy’s competition with giraffes for his girlfriend’s heart–is to have a subplot.  A Navy SEAL’s activities are exciting, but we’re not invested in them unless we know about the SEAL’s family back home, his sick kid or lonely wife.

    The giraffe is not impressed with Tommy's flowers.

    The giraffe is not impressed with Tommy’s flowers.

  • Tommy has a trick where he juggles one piece of chalk in his classroom.  His students aren’t impressed.  If you’re a writer juggling one thing, readers aren’t impressed.
  • Jody likes the screenwriter’s trick of knowing the heart of your story by being able to describe it in one sentence.  Tommy likes getting lost in the story, so our eternal subplot tension continues…
  • Then we talk about where we start as writers: with a character, or with a plot?
  • Jody starts with characters.  Or sometimes settings.  But never plot first.
  • Tommy says, “I don’t care how good your plot is, you can’t read the same plot for three hundred pages.  You need diversions and side avenues.”
  • Baker talks about how, as a writer, you have to be mean and cruel to your characters.  You have to make life hard on them, because that’s when life and stories get interesting.
  • Tommy shows how all the characters in Little Miss Sunshine all have problems.  Each character’s subplot comes together in a great final scene.
  • Even in Die Hard, if John McClain wasn’t having marriage problems, that’s a boring movie.  Even the bad guy in that movie has a backstory with emotional problems.
  • Jody asks whether Christopher’s question is about maybe he has an idea for a plot, but his characters want to go somewhere else.  That’s a good thing–it means the characters are alive.  As writers you should follow them!
  • Baker pontificates, and Tommy ignores it because he’s listening to his voicemail.
  • Our advice and answer to Christopher and lots of writers: go with characters.  People love people.  Readers want to follow a person.  It’s a good sign if characters are making their own choices–follow them and see where it goes.  (You can always use the plot in your next story, with different characters that might fit it better.)
  • Don’t force the plot on characters.  If they’re too malleable to the point where any plot can fit them, then they’re probably not strong enough as characters yet.

Tune in sometime next week or two to find out the saga of Tommy’s forlorn flowers and the giraffe thief.

Until next week, happy writing, y’all!

Photo: tambako