|This topic sheet was originally devised for the Exciting
Plot Writing course. There is a table of links
to other teaching resources towards the bottom of this page.
The defining feature of all good writing is that
it says something worth hearing in a way that engages and holds
the reader's attention. If the writer aims to use plot as the
means to convey meaning, these concepts take on a very specific
shape. Whereas successful business writing, say, may depend on
nothing more than compelling logic, plots invariably depend on
characters. Meaning in plot-driven writing is conveyed by the
words and actions of characters and the events that occur in
the context of their stories. In short, effective characterisation
is crucial to engaging and holding the attention of the reader.
Readers are never content with stasis for long. It may be acceptable,
even necessary, for a character to "stand still" momentarily
while an aspect of her/his persona is revealed, but the reader
will quickly lose interest if the character is not seen to move
on. In this sense, the concept of the "character journey"
is crucial to all writing based on plot.
Arguably the most helpful dictionary
definition of plot points the way to this concept: "a plan or scheme for the constitution
or accomplishment of something" (Shorter Oxford): the character
journey is purposeful in itself and, ideally, fulfils the purpose
of conveying an important truth to the reader, perhaps through
The underlying concepts of character journeys were first explored
more than 2,000 years ago by Aristotle.
His treatise on poetic and dramatic writing, Poetics,
remains the most authoritative analysis of the elements of plot
writing to this day, and some of the materials for this course
are derived directly from it.
here to view S H Butcher's (20th Century) translation of the full
text. Parts VII - XI are particularly relevant to the arguments
considered in this course.
Components of a Character Journey
Aristotle identified five crucial elements of character journeys,
One of the greatest frailties of the human condition is the
expectation that things will always go on pretty much as at
present. Character journeys, by compressing years into a few
hundred pages or an hour on stage, provide the opportunity to
remind the world that many lives include fundamental reversals
of fortune: poor boy made good, pillar of the community turns
ape, etc. Reversals such as these are the stuff of good plot,
particularly where they are shown to be the result of characters'
desires and actions. Whole books or plays may be devoted to
the exploration of the single reversal that utterly changed
a character's life. .
From the point of view of a reader experiencing a work for the
first time, all writing can be said to facilitate discovery.
Aristotle argued that the process should run deeper: within
the work itself. Specifically, characters should make discoveries
that inform and direct their journeys. Such discoveries assist
the telling of the story and increase the reader's empathy with
the character, by allowing the reader to share in the process
of discovery. This empathy may become particularly powerful
when the character's discoveries are self-discoveries: something
in their past, something about their own desires, strengths,
- Complication and
The reader's interest is unlikely to be maintained for long
if the character gets her/his way all the time. If we follow
eagerly a character's rapid rise to power, it is often because
we are expecting a fall somewhere along the way, and we will
be very disappointed if there is none. Aristotle argued that
the writer must deliberately place obstacles in the path of
the character's objectives. The two main types of obstacle are
the conflicting objectives of other characters and the occurrence
of events that force the character to deviate from the intended
journey. Not all events will be catastrophic, of course, but
Aristotle reminds us that catastrophe (whether physical or emotional)
is a very powerful agent of change that cannot be overlooked
by the writer. The crucial aspect from the reader's point of
view is how the character responds to the complications and
catastrophes set in her/his way.
Character journeys must have an end, of course. Aristotle spoke
in terms of a resolution, suggesting that the various threads
of the story must be tied up to satisfy the reader. The resolution
need not necessarily be cosy, or even conclusive. What matters
is that it emerges from the elements of the story as they have
been revealed. The reader is unlikely to be satisfied by the
sudden introduction of an idea that brings the story to a conclusion
but has not been present throughout most of the work. In a well
written crime novel, for instance, the revelation that is withheld
until the final page is invariably foreshadowed at or near the
beginning of the story.
How many journeys make a book?
Readers expect all the main characters to become changed in the
course of a work. But the writer may have much to gain by examining
the respective journeys of all characters, greater and lesser.
Lesser journeys by lesser characters add depth and credibility
to the work as a whole. Even if we are not particularly interested
in what the Under-Butler thinks of the Lady of the House, we may
be very interested by the subtle changes in his behaviour as her
alcoholism is revealed.
The subject of characterisation is not being addressed directly
in the Exciting Plot Writing course. However, students may wish
to refer to topic sheets from previous courses, as follows. (Topic
sheets will appear in a separate window.)