Develop Character with Plot

17 May
Alexander Chee's novel THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT is a national bestseller a review in Vogue called "brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters."

Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller and, according to Vogue, “brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters.”

For some literary writers, plot is a four-letter word. You’ll be at a party with writers or in class, and someone will say, “I’m just not interested in plot.” Or “I just want to write about a feeling.” These are valid statements and probably indicate one difference between literary and genre writers. Someone who writes classic mystery stories, for example is most likely very interested in plot and its mechanics. But mystery plots are not the only kind of plots, nor are thriller plots or YA dystopian plots. It’s possible to view plot as any device that creates suspense and, as a result, structure. In fact, the feelings or characters that some literary writers want to focus on can be developed most fully by using plot.

A great example of using the mechanics of plot to create character can be found in Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows the rise of an orphan from her humble origins on the American frontier to the heights of art and prestige as an opera singer in the court of French court of Napoleon III. As you might expect, the narrator’s life contains twists and turns that account for much of the basic plot of the novel. But Chee also uses plot in smaller, more subtle ways, as when he introduces the narrator’s life as a young girl in Minnesota and the singing talent that would carry her far from it. Here is an early passage in which the narrator sings in church with her mother:

I loved to go to church with her, but it was only to sing the hymns. This little church was my first theater. When the time came to sing, I was the very picture of an eager Christian, standing first out of the whole congregation, hymnal open, waiting impatiently for the pastor’s wife to pick out the refrain on the church’s piano. But when the singing was over, I’d sit numb for the rest of the service until my mother pulled my sleeve to show we were leaving. As we left, the congregation would come to say to her what a voice I had and wasn’t she so proud of me. And I would glow beside her, beaming at her, waiting for her to be proud of me. She would sometimes reach out and tuck my hair behind my ears if it had come loose.

This is a terrific description of character. We learn not only about the narrator’s gifted voice but also how it fits into the place where she lives. We learn how proud she is of her voice and how much she wants to be praised for it. Here’s the next line:

I loved my mother but I did not love God.

This line is crucial because it turns the character description into story. It creates an untenable situation—at least from the mother’s point of view. Not loving God isn’t an option, and so the mother acts: tying a piece of ribbon and velvet over the narrator’s mouth and forbidding her to sing in church.

“You’ll wear this today and think of how, when you know what you should know as a proper Christian, you can sing in church again.”

A few paragraphs later, the mother says, “There’s no gift like yours without a test.”

That is plot. We want to know what the narrator will do. A raw, prized part of her being has been taken from her; how will she respond? The answer propels the novel forward but also reveals greater depths within the narrator. It’s one thing to say, “She’s the kind of person who ____,” and it’s another to say, “She’s the kind of person who ___, and if you get in her way, she’ll ____.” The first cannot sustain a narrative on its own, and without narrative (however you think of it), there’s no short story or novel. In this case, the narrative is the opening of a novel, and so the narrator’s response suggests how she will respond to future obstacles. When allowed to sing again, she chooses subterfuge:

I made a deliberately thin, weak noise that blended quietly, like the noise of another girl.

The scene has not only developed her character but also a pattern of behavior that will shape the events of the novel. Character has introduced plot, plot has deepened character, and that character development will shape the plot going forward. One is necessary to create the other.

 

The Writing Exercise

Let’s deepen our understanding of a character using plot, with The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee as a model:

  1. Describe the character through a valued trait. It’s almost always the case that characters are built on only a handful of details—or even a single detail. In this case, it’s the narrator’s singing voice. So, give your character a noticeable trait or talent or vice. It doesn’t matter what it is; what’s important is that the character cares about it. The character should have strong feelings about that trait, talent, or vice. If Wendy, Michael, John, and Peter had said, “We can fly. Meh,” there would be no Peter Pan play or film. Even the most amazing trait falls flat if the characters don’t care. What personal, intrinsic or new thing does your character feel deeply about?
  2. Put the trait in conflict with some other value. Chee does this with rules. In frontier Minnesota, in this particular family, you love God. All actions should serve God. That’s the rule, and, of course, the narrator has broken it. Notice how Chee has introduced the rule through place and other characters. This is why it’s so difficult to write a story with only one character. How can you use the rules of a place, society, or group to create conflict with the trait you’ve just described? A good place to start is to simply list rules and listen for your character’s reaction. When the character gets uncomfortable, you’ve hit on something good.
  3. Challenge the character’s attachment to the trait. As the singer’s mother says, “There’s no gift…without a test.” You’re gauging how much your character values the trait. Unlike most tests, though, this one doesn’t carry the threat of failure, at least for the writer. If a character is easily cowed or quickly gives up on something he or she values, that’s not a bad sign for your story. Instead, it’s revealing something essential about the character that will be important as the story moves forward. What test can you give your character? How can you take away or hobble the trait?
  4. Make the stakes clear. In The Queen of the Night, the stakes are this: humble yourself before God or give up singing. Make one of your characters act like a parent: “Do as I say or else.”
  5. Explore the character’s response. Explore the range of possibilities. Your character can resist publicly or privately, use subterfuge, and give in publicly or privately. The response can be sincere or not. It’s the nature of the response that’s important. You’re testing the character’s mettle and discovering a reaction that could become a pattern of behavior when obstacle after obstacle is introduced.

The goal is to gain a better understanding of your character by introducing plot and then use that understanding to drive the plot forward.

Good luck.

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2 Responses to “Develop Character with Plot”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Alexander Chee | Read to Write Stories - May 20, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on creating character with plot based on The Queen of the Night, click here. […]

  2. How to Use Readers’ Desire to Create Suspense | Read to Write Stories - October 25, 2016

    […] a similar character who does the complete opposite, read Alexander Chee’s excellent novel The Queen of the Night.) Second, she creates Jeremy, the suitor who will take her away from the place where the weapon […]

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