21 June 2015

Plotting Your Character-Driven Novel? Get Wiki with it!

Image (c) JDawnInk, licensed from iStock.
Anyone who knows me personally is aware of the fact that I have trouble planning things out, especially when it comes to writing. I'm a serial pantser who tends to let the story go where it may. While this is a fun, exploratory way to write, it's not fun when you find yourself in a bind and unable to move ahead. I decided I wanted to get better at plotting, and come up with a plan for a clearer, more cohesive structure that still allows some wiggle room for discovery.

My inspiration, and current plotting plan, all came about through my reliance on wikis. If you're unfamiliar with what a wiki is, it's not too different from what Wikipedia is--a compendium of information collaboratively presented to the public. While Wikipedia breaks down almost every topic you can think of, a wiki is more like a "themed encyclopedia." Most wikis are a part of the website Wikia, a free hosting site founded by the creators of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. There is a wiki for practically anything. The wikis created by fan communities are particularly loaded with information, and they offer a place for fans to discuss and disseminate their fandoms and favorite franchises. 

My plotting eureka (and this is still a fresh epiphany) came about through reading wikis on some of my favorite anime series. A lot of anime are adaptations of popular manga (comics) or light novels, so while the medium may change, for the most part, story structure tends to carry over from the page to the screen. The repeated trend with anime and manga plot structure (although this is not exclusive to them) is the use of story arcsand it was only through consulting the wiki of each specific series did I catch on to this concept.

Since I'm a character-driven writer, I think that interest carries over into what I like to read and watch. When I have questions about a series I'm into, it usually revolves around a specific character. So I pull up the wiki, search for the character article, and then a clear pattern emerges within the post: the character's vitals (statistics) are presented, followed by a general background that consists of a couple paragraphs (usually appearance, history, and personality descriptions). Then, the character's detailed contributions to the plot is presented, organized by story arc.

According to Jenna Blum from Author at Work (source): 
"The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to [a]ffect change. [...] In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement: The end of a narrative arc [...] shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through."
Within anime and manga, each story arc has a specific title that indicates the main narrative plot, and then the character's actions and contributions to that story arc are listed in detail.  If you like to write character-driven stories and have trouble with plotting, following the organization in an anime or manga wiki is like using a blueprint.

An example of a character wiki in action: story arcs for Ken Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul (click to enlarge):

Screenshot from Tokyo Ghoul Wikia's
entry for Ken Kaneki (SPOILERS).

The character listing for Ken follows a traditional pattern: 
  • a brief intro that identifies his main role in the story and briefly breaks down how his character functions or evolves in the plot, wrapping with the character's current whereabouts (either the story so far, or where the character is at the story's conclusion)
  • "Vitals" which are displayed across from the introduction, mentioning things like height, weight, birthdate, family tree, etc.
  • A lengthy discussion regarding the character's appearance, including any changes or details that are significant to characterization (this goes beyond "vitals")
  • A discussion of the character's personality, which covers the character's behavior and emotions during the course of the story, and a brief elaboration on the character's history
  • The largest section is devoted to plot, which is actually the detailed blueprint of the character's actions, organized by story arc. 
Story arcs are named for specific actions, the introduction of new characters and their roles in the story, or for the specific plot tasks that need to be accomplished. Most importantly, each story arc adds a new layer of conflict to the story.  

In the above screenshot from the Tokyo Ghoul wikia, the two arcs listed are "The Doves' Emergence" and "Gourmet Arc." 

Need help blueprinting?
Check out wikia.
"The Doves' Emergence" is titled not only for a specific action (the appearance of the CCG in the ward), but also encompasses the introduction of several characters who all function as "Doves" (such as Amon and Mado) and introduces one of the main conflicts in the story: Humans vs. Ghouls.

 In the "Gourmet Arc," the title refers to the introduction of a major character (Tsukiyama Shuu); the arc also introduces a brand-new setting (the Restaurant/arena), and introduces a new level of conflict to the Humans vs. Ghouls motif--Gourmets are enemies of both humans and ghouls.

While each arc compounds the overall conflict in the narrative (while introducing new characters or settings), it's important to note that each conflict also involves the character being profiled. The plot arcs wouldn't be included if the character did not contribute to them in any way (something to think about as you plot your own stories!).

These plot arcs are included because the character profiled (in this instance, Ken Kaneki) plays an important role in them. The conflicts aren't just Humans (Doves) vs. Ghouls vs. Gourmets --it's very much Kaneki vs. Humans, Kaneki vs. Ghouls, and Kaneki vs. Gourmets. Even while Kaneki is allied with members of each faction, he's still fighting them off at the same time. This makes for very interesting stuff, to say the least, and perhaps most importantly, show that the events of each story arc contribute to his evolution (or devolution) as a character. 

Basically, the wiki clarifies the connections between plot and character. If you're struggling with this, it's not a bad idea to use the wiki organization to help organize your own story. Wikis, as they chronicle story arcs, clearly show how elements of the plot are used to define the character. In other words, it illustrates the very purpose of the story arc--to bring about change.

As I worked on The Step and the Walk, which has started and stopped over the past year or so, I decided to try plotting using the "story arc" method, following the organization within the character wiki articles. I'm not writing an entire wiki article by any means, but I am following the process of writing the entries for each individual story arc.

Screenshot of my notes for the "Meriveche" story arc,
which introduces an antagonist for Andresh.
Text (c) Kristina Elyse Butke. All rights reserved.
Since trying this plotting method, I've clarified a lot of what's been aimlessly rolling around in my head for a while now. My notes, which used to consist of a paltry three to five bullet points of vague plot goals for the entire novel, are now about 2-3 pages long for each story arc. While I don't know everything that's happening in the book (hence that room for pantsing), I am aware of where and roughly when it's supposed to happen; thus, my story arcs are named for settings in the novel.

I've completed the "Meriveche arc" and "Blau Blumenwald arc" descriptions for my book, which revolve around the protagonist Andresh's character. Each "arc entry" details what he does, what happens to him, what new characters or concepts are introduced, and most importantly, how this plot points change Andresh's character. 

I sort of stumbled into this method, but now that I've found it, I'm going to stick to it. It's pretty exciting, and gives me a great deal of peace of mind when I sit down to write, because I have a clearer idea of where I want things to go, and more importantly, why these things must happen.

If you're stuck, maybe consider giving this method a shot--and let me know in the comments if this (or something else) works out for you.

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