It’s more important to be able to write a strong conversation than a strong plot. If you want to write a good story, you first need to be able to write solid dialogue. If you can do that, plot is relatively easy.
NOTE: I said relatively. It still isn’t all that easy.
But in my limited experience, the stumbling block for aspiring writers is found in the subject of characters. If the characters have any life in them at all, then most of your work is done. A writer who has a solid flair for dialogue has a flat out better chance at getting published than one who crafts complex plots.
The best way to know if you know your characters is to have them simply talk to each other. Can they chat freely? Do they constantly refer to plot points rather than their own opinions. Outside of the story you’ve placed them in, do they have any larger objectives, emotional baggage, an outlook beyond conquering their current predicaments? If they don’t, then you probably dropped the ball.
The test is to put two characters (any two you’ve created, even if they don’t belong in the same story), stick them in a room, and see if they can freely converse. You can’t plan out the conversation. That’s cheating. It’s also entirely missing the point. For fictional characters to have any semblance of life, they should be able to function spontaneously, just as real people do. If your characters only work in the cozy predictability of their pre-arranged universe, they aren’t really characters at all. They’re puppets, dancing to your tune.
All great characters have their own life. Kermit the frog isn’t a real person, but we can all imagine talking to him. Bugs Bunny, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jane Eyre, and a thousand other classic characters all exist beyond their artist’s imagination because they have managed to take on a life of their own. Just as we know that calling Miss Piggy fat is sure to get you a karate chop, and that Optimus Prime is sure to say something inspiring in our darkest hour. Or that Emperor Palpatine will say something snide and R2D2 will say something snarky. Yes, even R2D2, with dialogue that is entirely beeps, is snarky.
Which brings me to my second point. The specifics of the dialogue are less important than the general vibe the characters will put out. If a character has a consistent vibe, then they will ring true. This is why plot is lousy for creating characters. Plot doesn’t give a damn about consistency. Plot just wants interesting stuff to happen. And when characters work for the plot, they’ll do pretty much any stupid thing to keep conflict going. In one scene, they might be strong and self-reliant. In the next, they might be timid and docile. Whatever the plot wants.
Strong characters have a tendency to confound the plot. Strong, consistent characters will often get in the way of keeping things interesting. They have their own needs, and they couldn’t give a damn about the plot. You can force them to do what you want, but only if you’re willing to jump into their heads and pull the levers and switches yourself, reducing them to automatons. Honestly, many in your audience won’t care. Most won’t even notice. You can get away with a lot of forced characterization if the result is entertaining, but I prefer characters who have will of their own.
Again, I refer to the Star Wars prequels. Not because they’re bad films. They are, at worst, average. But they suffer because the characters lack that central characterization that makes them work. No one in the prequel exists as a person. All are merely living plot points being pushed around an outline. Anakin falls because he’s supposed to. Amidala loves him because that’s her job. The Emperor is evil because evil is what he does. And the Jedi are exterminated because story demands it.
And yet none of that matters. This is because Star Wars cheats a bit by having a built-in fanbase that will like it no matter what, but it’s also because the prequels are mostly excuses for cool lightsaber fights. Nothing wrong with that.
(Apologies for the Star Wars negativity, folks, but they do tend to illustrate my points when it comes to lifeless writing.)
Good characters are consistent characters. Consistent characters have solid emotional weight behind them. They might not always have clear goals (just like real people), but they have reliable reactions. Those reactions might screw with your story, but it’s better to twist a story to fit characters than to twist characters to fit story because plot is far more flexible than characterization.
Done right, solid characters will carry a story, even if it isn’t where you thought that story was heading. Heck, sometimes a great character can make your story better than you ever thought it could be. I’ll give credit to my characters for doing a lot of the heavy lifting, for opening doors I never planned on going through, for exploring worlds I never intended. Every time they do, I try to remember to thank them for it. They might be a pain in my ass sometimes, but they usually know what they’re doing.
And if they don’t, I can always fix it in edits.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,