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Authenticity vs. Outline

Have you ever had a character take over?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  It’s a commonly reported phenomenon: My protagonist wouldn’t listen!  She did what she wanted to do, not what I wanted her to do!  That can be a good quality.  Acting in ways honest and human is what psychologists—and literary critics—call being authentic.

Realism is necessary in order for readers to participate in a character’s story, experiencing it “as if” it is their own experience.  By contrast, poor motivation and forced actions create stories that aren’t believable.  We groan and roll our eyes.  Inauthentic characters—what WU contributor David Corbett calls Plot Puppets—may obey their authors and fulfill the requirements of plot but do not connect with readers.

On the other hand, plot is important.  For story to be satisfying, things must necessarily go a certain way.  Stories impose on characters’ problems beyond the ordinary and complications more plentiful than we readers endure even on our worst days.  Protagonists must make mistakes, do wrong, be shadowed by past shames, and have flaws to overcome.  Where we may avoid our own ugliness, protagonists must face it.  Where we may dawdle, delay and avoid what is difficult or unpleasant, protagonists must act.

Plot is the author’s design.  It not only enacts the author’s intention but illustrates the author’s point.  Without it characters can chase their own shadows.  Stories without a strong design can feel realistic yet without force.  Without an author’s strong hand on the wheel characters can race around in circles, their stories becoming self-indulgent, stuck in low gear.

How, then, does authorial design dovetail with characters’ free will?  Who really is, and should be, in charge?  Is there a balance of power?  Are the realms of authority, perhaps, in which the author imposes conditions and throws events at protagonists while protagonists for their part respond naturally and humanly?  Authors are in charge of what’s big; character are in charge of what’s small?

Is an author God?  Do characters exist mainly to be tested?  Or, is it the reverse?  Should authors think of stories arising mainly from frail characters’ hidden needs?  Is outward plot most effective when it’s a reflection of an inner journey?  What comes first, the arc or the covenant?

Does it depend on the type of story you’re telling?  Are thrillers licensed to plot, while women’s fiction flows with the human heart?  Are the plot patterns of timeless storytelling in conflict with our modern yearning for connection?  Are outline and authenticity in permanent opposition, the yin and yang of storytelling?

I believe it’s unhelpful to think of it that way.  Storytellers don’t have to choose.  Authenticity and outline may not only co-exist, they can be polymer-bonded and become a material stronger then either one is alone.  The bonding happens inside the storyteller.  When story intention and compassion for characters are fused a story can have both a steel skeleton and a heart that we feel hammering as hard as our own.

How is that effect achieved?  The solution involves transforming yourself into both Story God and the Story God’s subject.  The Story God is wrathful and compassionate; by turns gracious or harsh.  The Story’s God’s subject—your protagonist—is flawed but defiant, sunk by human need but lifted by divine-given strength.  Let’s practice.

First, become your protagonist and write your response to these prompts:

Next, become the Story God and write your response to these prompts:

I’m sure you can see what to do with the results of your role playing.  That which your protagonist would avoid, make unavoidable.  That which your protagonist fears, bring about.  The basis for action is that at which your protagonist excels.  The basis of failure is that which tempts your protagonist and to which he or she succumbs.

Meanwhile, your story design is directed not at humanity in general but at your protagonist in particular.  The events you create are intended to hit your protagonist’s weaknesses and push him or her toward his or her strengths.  A lesson will be learned.  This protagonist will see or discover something for himself or herself.  (And everyone else will get the point.)

When author’s intention is fused with characters’ human needs, readers do not notice the author’s hands on the levers of destiny.  The story can happen only to this character, and only in this way.  At the same time, while these story events are all set to transform this unique protagonist they are also a lesson for us all.

Protagonist’s have free will.   Story Gods—that’s you—have a grand design.  Protagonists exist to serve that design.  Plot enacts it.  Even so Story Gods have compassion for protagonists’ suffering.  They guide protagonists yet allow them to discover for themselves the means of their salvation.  They play…but in the Story God’s sandbox.

How will your protagonist use his or her freedom?  How will your plot nevertheless enact your purpose?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].