Meet Your Best Friend, Mr. Right Margin: Characters Creating Plots

I’ve been teaching a fiction workshop this quarter designed especially for poets and nonfiction writers in our MFA program at Ohio State. In addition to its official course number, English 765B, I like to attach a subtitle: “Meet Your Best Friend, Mr. Right Margin.” That’s directed mainly toward the poets, of course, who sometimes have a fear of that right margin. As my colleague, Andrew Hudgins, said once, poets should be told that if they touch that right margin they might pick up a disease.

At our first meeting, I asked the students to tell me about their fears when it came to writing fiction. I seem to recall quite a bit of conversation about how to utilize the imagination (some of the nonfiction writers in particular were so steeped in an aesthetic of fact that it was hard for them to consider making things up) and how to structure an extended narrative, something the poets and lyric essayists have sometimes had problems with in past versions of this workshop. So  how to use the imagination and how to write long. I’m happy to report that I believe the students met both challenges and succeeded in overcoming them. I know I’ve seen some very inventive uses of the flash fiction form, and I’ve also seen some long stories structured nicely from a consideration of character and a creation of a causal chain of narrative events. I’ve enjoyed watching my students take their tentative first steps into the genre. I’ve particularly enjoyed watching them gain confidence as they’ve gained a deeper understanding of the tools at their disposal and how to use them.

Now they’re faced with turning in revisions of two drafts, one of them a piece of flash fiction and one of them an extended narrative. Today, one of the students asked me how I worked with character when starting a story. Did I first write down everything I could think of about that character as a way of knowing him or her before beginning to write the story? I know this technique works for some, and that’s great, but I haven’t used such a strategy in a good while. My student wanted to know how I came to know a character? I said that I prefer to put my main characters into motion at the beginning of a piece of fiction, and I like the dialogue and the actions to tell me who these characters think they are. Then I try to find a narrative that forces them to the point where it’s impossible for them to maintain this self-serving narrative. There’s always another narrative running along beneath the surface of the one that the characters tell themselves, and their own actions and their consequences can force those other narratives up through the surface of the first narrative.

In the creation of a first draft and also in revision, it can be a good idea for the writer to think in terms of opposites. If  a character gets into trouble of his or her own making in the opening of a story, and then tries to get out of that trouble, a causal chain of narrative events can unfold, one that puts pressure on the character and the way he or she likes to think about him or herself. The pressure, usually enhanced through the character’s own actions, finally reaches a point where  something opposite from the self-constructed image, comes to the surface of the narrative. That opposite has been present from the very beginning, but it’s taken the pressures of plot to bring it to light.

Ever seen that optical illusion image that looks like a face in profile, but when you look at it long enough, it turns into a vase? That’s sort of what I’m talking about. Two very different characteristics contained in the same person or situation, one of them privileged, but not for along. The submerged characteristic is always rising through the course of the narrative until it breaks through at the end.

Make up a character right now. A man whose job it is to clean up crime scenes? (Yes, I’ve used this one in my story, “The Least You Need to Know.”) What do you think most people would assume about that character from the git-go? That it must take a creepy sort of man to do that kind of work, perhaps a calloused man with little emotional response to anything around him? Okay, then, what’s the opposite of that? A deeply caring man? Fine. Let an initial action on the part of that man, create a sequence of events that puts pressure on him until it becomes evident, as it did for the man in my story, that he just wants the best for people, that when he cleans a house where a murder or suicide has taken place, he’s offering a blessing to the people who will live in that house in the future, people who’ll never know about the horrible thing that had happened there.

We could even create a writing activity here on the spot. Choose an occupation for a character. What would people assume to be true about the person who had that job? What action involving that job could set the character into motion in the the opening scene of the story? What consequences might arise that would require further actions from the character? What would be the cause and effect between the resulting scenes of complication? How could the pressures of the narrative flip a reader’s initial assumptions about the character? Perhaps, the characters own assumptions about the self will flip as well.

Anything’s possible as long as we keep writing toward that right margin.


  1. Lauren Norton on November 29, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Hi Lee,

    Today, I will think in opposites as I revise. In addition to spurring motion and putting pressure on the characters, both of which are crucial to narrative, opposites can also add complexity, surprise, and sometimes tension. You have also helped me focus on the opposites I already have incubating. Thanks!

    Lauren Norton

    • Lee Martin on November 29, 2011 at 10:33 am

      Hi, Lauren. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Good luck to all of us with holding our opposites together!

  2. Bren McClain on November 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    You’re one of the few amazing writers who also is an amazing teacher. Thank you, Lee, for always teaching us.

    • Lee Martin on November 29, 2011 at 7:26 pm

      The way I see it, Bren, is we’re all teaching one another. Solidarity!

  3. Byron Edgington on November 29, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Okay, so why did I just think of the repo man? Or the person who attaches a foreclosure notice to doors, and changes locks? Or what about the food bank supervisor who steals donations to feed his own family? Fertile ground here. Occupations really do work for an exercise like you’re describing.
    Thanks for another great quarter, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on November 29, 2011 at 7:26 pm

      Byron, I love all your examples because they’re unique and also rich with moral complexity. Have a great break!

  4. John Zulovitz on December 14, 2011 at 5:32 am

    Recently, I dealt with this very exercise in a short-subject screenplay, which is now in preproduction. Due to fiscal considerations, I was asked to write a story in which there are only two characters, one female, the other male. For the same reason, the locations had to be minimal.

    I sat for a few minutes, received an initial image, and plunged into excavating the story (for me, this means discovering who the characters were based upon not only what they said and did, but what they didn’t do and say).

    As the characters started to interact and to speak, I noticed how tenatively polite they were being to each other. While they seemed genuine enough in their benevolence, something didn’t ring quite true. In order to discover why this was so, I wrote further. There were suggestions and coaxings from one character, and civil deflections from the other. Then, at what turned out to be the midpoint of the story, one of the characters made a remark that completely shocked me — a counterbalance of perception and behavior, of detail and disclosure. With a few deceptively simple words, I was off and running.

    It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of writing fiction: having an idea of who the characters are, and then discovering they’re never quite who they seem to be. Call it duality or schism; call it whatever you like. But distilled to its base principle? There is no one walking the face of this planet who is exorbitantly good or evil.

    Well… it is true that there are some truly nefarious individuals in the world (one need only read history or turn on the nightly news), but it’s interesting that they never quite see themselves that way. It’s not the writer’s job, I think, to judge them. The second one does that, he or she stops writing characters and commences fashioning caricatures.

    The trick is to discover the conflict(s), and then proceed to investigate said conflict(s) through the characters, who themselves perform a kind of tenuous dance. For me, this is the joy of writing; it challenges my own perceptions about the world and the myriad people who comprise its population. Art at its best, I think, performs two very important duties: to allow us to consider our world from a perspective that is not specifically our own; and to remind us of our capability as a species to exercise empathy.

    In the flux of creation, however, it’s all about that dance…and the discoveries it portends.

    • Lee Martin on December 19, 2011 at 7:27 pm

      John, you make some excellent points, and it’s very cool to hear about your process. Keep on keeping on, my friend.

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