What do you base a story on? Do you have a plot that’s been rolling through your brain, based on an historical or life-changing event? Or is it based on a certain person, grappling with a foible of the human condition? Fiction writing texts tell us most stories are plot-driven or character-driven, but I tend to think of it another way. Not in all stories but perhaps in some, it’s the character’s own tendencies that drives the plot.
I recently read A Handmaid’s Tale (I believe I’m the last person in North America to actually say “I recently read” it), which no doubt can be considered plot-driven. In short, it’s set in the dystopian nation of Gilead, where a patriarchal and militaristic society subjugates women, most notoriously the young, fertile kind who must bear the society’s children for those who can’t. The story is told through the viewpoint of the handmaiden Offred, and it’s through her eyes that we learn firsthand of the totalitarian regime’s constraints. For much of the first part of the book we see how Offred bends to the will of the society, but as we learn, through flashbacks, about her personality and the way she lived her life before a government coup, we see how much her rebellious and questioning nature was suppressed. So when she is allowed some liberties and is taken to a skewed but still viable throwback to the way life used to be, she becomes bolder and starts taking chances again, her rebel proclivities driving the narrative to a precarious yet daring end.
So how does her inherent nature drive the plot? Without revealing too much of the story, if Offred was more reticent, if she remained subjugated, if she wasn’t willing to take life-or-death chances, the plot may have veered to a more tragic ending. Instead the character pushes the boundaries, drawing on her past experiences to use them as a catalyst for her forward actions. As a reader we get to know the Offred of the nation of Gilead, but also who she had been before it (there’s some conjecture what her real name is–some have said Kate, but she’s referred to as June in the the Netflix series). When we learn what was important to her in the past, how she handled certain situations, and most tragically what she had lost, we can better understand the decisions she makes when handling the situations she confronts now.
In effect, she’s acting in character, and it’s her intrinsic likes, dislikes, fears, and foibles that direct her actions and reactions, thus steering the plot. And it’s her own character flaws and attributes that make those plot twists and turns all the more believable. For the writer, delving deep into the personality of the character, really knowing who they are and what they’re capable of, is essential to the change that must come over your protagonist as they’re propelled toward the conclusion, and thus one wholly satisfying ending.