Author, editor, and writing coach Jeff Gerke has a pretty damn good theory about writers. And a pretty simple one at that: all things considered, we fall into just two types. (I know, and you thought you were so original!) But his theory stands up. Willing to admit it or not, there are those among us who are great with characters, setting, world-building, and description and those who excel at plot, at connecting the dots, telling the story, taking us seamlessly from rising action through conflict upon conflict until we don't even care who the story is about because we can't wait to get to the twist at the end.
Unfortunately, the writer who is equally skilled in both plot and character is rare. Most of us tend to lean heavily towards one side or the other. For fiction to be truly outstanding, it is vital that it be rock solid in both areas. This can be wearisome and exasperating, especially when we know where our weaknesses lie but have given up on the idea of any sort of a solution. We've resigned ourselves to the extra months of sweat and tears to try and make sense of the "other side" of the writing divide. You know, the one all mysterious and shrouded in darkness.
Luckily for us, Gerke brought along a big flashlight! He didn’t let the insight he had about these two strikingly different writing styles wither in the back of a notebook somewhere. He sat down and did something about it, creating a few ingenious writing tools that offer us a glimpse into the brain of those living on that scary "other side". Once you are actually thinking like a character maven or a plot genius it's a simple step-by-step process. There's plenty of work involved, but stay on the path, and you will have fantastically rich characters and stay-up-all-night plots carrying your novel all the way to the publishing house.
The first tool, Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist will take you through the ropes of creating living, breathing characters with a kick start from real Myers-Briggs and Keirsey (Enneagram) personality types, followed by the most in-depth character worksheet I've ever come across. Other than the use of personality types, the thing that really stands out about this worksheet is how each section builds upon the next. We are connecting the dots to make a complex mind, not just writing a laundry list of traits; we are exploring how those traits really work together in unison, creating their own important and unique attributes.
Along with the character creation template, you get some background into personality types (including a short humorous chart titled "Myers-Briggs Prayers for the 16 Personality Types") and a fun little no-frills program called Charpick which at the push of a button randomizes choices for 42 different character traits. This is great for adding some spice to a main character. For a minor player, try letting it do all or most of the mixing of for you. You just might be inspired by the cosmic character soup it serves up. Me? I'm already feeling sorry for my plain red-headed child with a full beard and "not too bright" intelligence. Careful though, like most random generators caution is advised in the hands of naturally procrastinating writers. Gerke recommends picking up a copy of Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence by David Keirsey for more insight into the Myers-Briggs character types. I also highly recommend What Type Am I?:The Myers-Briggs Type Indication Made Easy by Renee Baron for the same purpose.
On the other side of the fence, Gerke gives us How to Find Your Story: A Step-by-Step Roadmap for Creating Page-Turning Plots. As a character-minded writer myself this one was the tool I knew I'd be scrutinizing the most. As you can imagine, I've read more than my share of books about plot. Still, I've struggled with finding interesting story and structure for years, while churning out notebooks full of deep, damaged, and drifting characters who ultimately continue to drift until I lose interest or get distracted by an idea for another quirky character. I've always heard that if you write good characters they will write the story for you. In my nearly eight years of working as novelist and screenwriter, I've yet to see that miracle occur.
How to Find Your Story starts out with a great visual of internal and external plot structure which if you don't already have burned into your consciousness to the point that you can recreate it in your sleep, you would do well to print out and post in a prominent place on your writing bulletin board, the cover of your laptop, the ceiling over your bed, et cetera. This is your road map, your template, and your kick in the pants to remind you that your story needs to actually be going somewhere!
Gerke does an amazing job of walking you step-by-step through not only the elements of plot development, but theme, backdrop, antagonists, ticking bombs, character journey's and knots, and structure, structure, structure. Each element is tied into the questions on the How To Find Your Story worksheet. Again, this deceptively simple tool is a powerhouse plot generator and the instruction in the program is some of the best I've ever come across. But that's enough out of me, I've got some stories to write!
Jeff Gerke's programs can be found on his website: Where the Map Ends.