Whether you have no plot, half a plot, or just need to spice things up a bit, this article gives advice on to create and solve conflict in a character-centered story, along with a few ideas for inspiration.
Growing Plot from Character
In many stories, the protagonist is the heart and the plot is the body. This is a good strategy. The character drives the plot and the plot in turn creates needs for the character to attempt to overcome and structure to make the story flowing and paced.
Often I start with a character and a few loose ideas about that character, but not a very strong plot idea. If you’ve got a well-developed character but are lacking in plots, it's a good idea to grow your plot from your character. Write down what you know about your character: his or her personality, past, future goals, etc. Once you know what your characters have been through, where they want to go, and what kind of person they are, you might get some ideas about what is missing or what needs fixing in their life. I’ll illustrate how to do this method.
Meet Mitch. His mom was a perfectionist and she tried to make him perfect. He rebelled, and even now that he is twenty-something, much of what he does is driven by the desire to annoy his mom and assert himself. Mitch was bullied at the boarding school his mom sent him to, and with no one to protect him, he developed haphephobia (fear of touch) and an outer shell of autonomy. Also because of bullying, he gave up on social life and receded into more a nerdy endeavor: computers. As a teen, he was still bullied but started hanging out with some shady kids who promised to teach him self-defense if he would do little things for them, like illegally downloading movies for them, and hacking their friends’ Facebook accounts. This is how Mitch became a hacker. Eventually, he got caught on a fairly minor offense, but the government agreed to let him off if he would start helping them instead. Now he tries to stay out of big-time hacking and makes a living as a freelance worker helping websites improve their security. Oh, and how does he annoy his mom? By spiking his hair, wearing guyliner, not having a “real” job, and never coming to family events, just to name a few.
Okay. So now we’ve got a character with a past and a personality. How can we grow a plot out of this? We’ve got quite a lot to go on. For a short light-hearted story, maybe his mom makes a big effort to get him to come to the family New Year’s party, using all kinds of tricks and persuasion. For a longer more intense story, maybe a bad guy tries to force Mitch to do some hacking work for him. Maybe the “bad guy” is a girl who kidnaps him to try to force him to hack something. Maybe she also has a crush on Mitch, but when she tries to make a move on him, his haphephobia flares up. Just brainstorm: use as many “what ifs” as you can!
Say you’ve already got a good protagonist and antagonist and your main plot is shaping up. But, things are looking a little sparse. Maybe what you wanted to be a novel will only amount to a short story if you write it with the overly-basic plot you have now. If your plot is too simple, worry not, for there is a cheat: sub-villains!
Just having one fight with the villain doesn’t amount to much. Just think if Star Wars was about nothing but a kid who is told his father is Darth Vader, then fights him. There would not be enough time for character development, Luke wouldn’t gone through enough for his final battle to be triumphant and dramatic, and there certainly wouldn’t have been three movies.
Take The Lord of the Rings for example. Frodo and Sam had to get past all kinds of people trying to get the ring from them before they could have the final battle with Sauron and Gollum. This is a technique the Alex Rider series often utilized. There would be some sort of assassin or henchman that Alex had to get through before he could have the final battle with the villain himself.
Create a sub-antagonist you have to defeat before you can tackle the main antagonist. For example, before defeating the crime lord, have your protagonist have to get through the crime lord’s body gaurds. And remember, an antagonist doesn’t always have to be a person. For example, if your protagonist is battling a more abstract “villain” such as cancer, he or she may struggle to find funds for treatment before they can fight the cancer itself (I should note that some have argued that a disease cannot be an antagonist, but that is irrelevant to my point here).
Make conflict stacks, Russian doll plots: to get to one goal, they have to get through several other goals first. Make. Them. Suffer. Be a sadist. Give them a really, really bad day.
Example: your protagonist found the perfect girl, and his goal is to go to the coffee shop she works at, and ask her out. Simple, right? Not by the time we're done with him. Perhaps this is the last day he has to ask her out before she's gone forever, because he overheard her saying she had found a new job and is quitting the coffee shop this weekend. He decides he better ask her before it's too late. First, he gets a haircut to look as stylish as possible, but ends up getting the worst haircut of his life. Let's say he solves that by the masterful innovation of his sister, and he's all set to go to the coffee shop. Next, he realizes he left his car in a no-parking zone on the street outside his house, and it's been towed. But, he solves that by getting a taxi. The taxi gets caught in traffic. Time is running short. When he finally gets there, a car runs through a puddle, splashing all over him as he stands on the sidewalk. His shirt is ruined. He checks his watch, only a few minutes left until closing time. He runs to the clothing store, changes in the fitting room, and runs back to the coffee shop. Just as he enters, he sees the girl of his dreams hugging another man. He is silently devastated, until he overhears that it's her brother. Soon, he sees her getting ready to leave. Finally, it's his chance to ask her out. But, did I mention he's chronically shy? After he painfully stammers his profession of love, the girl finds him cute and says that yes she'd love to go out with him. The guy is ecstatic. It was all worth it. Now, all this doesn't just make the story longer, it makes it more interesting (in this case, somewhat comical as well) and the triumph more triumphant. The more misery your protag has to go through, the more happy we will be when he gets what he wants--or the more devastated we will be if he fails. So next time your plot seems too simple and boring, brainstorm every obstacle you can throw in your protagonist's way.
What is the Worst Thing That Could Happen to Your Character?
The emphasis in this sentence is on YOUR character. What is specifically bad for YOUR character. If the only friend your character has left is her sister, make that sister move away for college or a job. Oh, does your character get bullied at school? A perfect time to send him to live with the bully and his family for a week. Did her parents dies and now she has to take care of her younger brother but she worries she isn't doing a good enough job? Let's confirm those worries and get the younger brother into trouble for getting into fights. In this technique, it helps to think of opposites. If your character is a high-class movie star, send him to spend a week in a slum. If your character is a down to earth hermit who likes to sit home alone and read, send her on a road trip with a pretentious movie star.
Of course things like the death of a loved one or death of self are typically the WORST thing and can work well, but in order to be interesting, those things should be specific in some way to your character. Nearly everyone is upset when they lose their mom, but what is different about it for your character? Did he wish he would't have become estranged from her years ago? Was he dependent on her because she was the only one who understood him, and now he feels utterly alone? Does he deal with pain and loss in a unique way? Similarly, nearly everyone is upset to die. But why is YOUR character upset? Is it because he knows he won't live to see his sister's wedding next month? Because her best friend is going through depression and she worries her friend might commit suicide without her support?
On another note, don't always think that you have to do something terrible to your character to have an engaging story. People don't always have to die and become severely traumatized for an interesting story! Take for instance my character, Bart. He is the laziest college student you've ever seen. He is overweight, bribes others to do his schoolwork to get a passing grade, and does nothing but eat junk food and his own personal movie-watching-and-reviewing hobby. For him, the worst thing that could happen is losing his family, but the worst thing that could happen to him that is specific to his character would be being forced to get off the couch and work hard. So, to make Bart miserable, we could assign him a huge project at school, have his mom tell him that she'll cut off his funds if he doesn't start helping more around the house, or even send him to a work camp if we're feeling especially creative. The point is, we are putting the character in a situation that is unpleasant for him specifically, whereas another person might not mind much.
Have your protagonists solve the plot in a way that is unique to them.
We’re not here to see just any ole normal person solve their problems in a normal way. We’re here to watch your fascinating character do their thing, to see your creativity as an author. The method your protagonist uses to solve her problems is what reveals her character. For example, in the Star Wars prequels, Padme's first instinct is often diplomacy while Anakin's first instinct is fighting.
Remember Bart? The lazy guy? Say he got sent to that work camp. How would he solve that in a way that was unique to him? A regular person might try to work hard so the people in charge guards don’t start picking on him. But not Bart. Physical labor is not in his vocabulary. Bart would probably do the same thing he does with school assignments: barely scrape by, and somehow bribe or blackmail other people to do it for him. This is an example of how a protagonist approaches his dilemma in a way that is unique to and consistent with his personality.