We’ve established that characters need to have a logical reason for their actions beyond the necessity of the plot but we still need to have a plot. Whatever kind of story we write it’s a combination of character and plot, sometimes the characters drive the plot and sometimes the plot drives the characters.
Characters might drive the plot in a romance novel where their changing emotions affect the way the plot goes. We know we’ve got two or more characters meeting and they need to be together by the end of book one, two, or three but it all hangs on building a convincing relationship between them. In most cases it will be audience expectation rather than plot pressure that suggests they will get together.
In an adventure story it might be the plot that drives the story. Dangerous times are afoot and our unlikely hero must emerge to defeat the evil force. While there is the question of whether the hero can rise to the challenge the pressure comes from the plot. If the hero doesn’t meet and overcome the challenges the world as they know it will come to an end, the stakes are imposed by a force outside the character.
Whichever one we choose we’re probably going to have certain points we want to hit. By this I don’t mean we have to follow a formula but we’re going to want to have challenges for the characters to overcome. The problem can be that they overcome them too easily or the challengers or the way they overcome them is too convenient for the plot. An example would be the superpower that mysteriously doesn’t work when it would be most useful.
A way to counteract the superpower effect would be the kryptonite solution. We’ve given our characters powers but they also need an exploitable weakness. Superman has kryptonite and it makes complete sense that someone who wants to defeat him would kryptonite against him. We can even build into the story the antagonist figuring out the protagonist’s weakness to use it against them.
This also raises the question of how they overcome the challenges present in the story, which can be as much the story as the main plot. Here we have the opposite risk of plot convenient ‘powers’ disappearing, instead it’s magical solution appearing. One often mentioned is the eagles in Lord of the Rings. Sauron has been defeated and Mordor is collapsing, how will Sam and Frodo escape? Suddenly there’s giant eagles to fly and take them to safety. Wait a minute… wouldn’t they have been very helpful at several points in the story? Or, as people have often pointed out, why didn’t they just fly to/into Mordor? This presents the immediate risk of throwing the reader out of the story when they go ‘what?’ but it’s also important to remember that we don’t have to make everything complicated.
People have a laugh about the eagles but they still love The Lord of The Rings. We can get away with a certain amount of plot convenience but if The Lord of The Rings had all been convenient solutions to problems would people have loved it as much? Readers and the film audience follow these characters through hard won victories, they love the characters, root for them and want them to survive. It’s entirely possible that the eagle solution manifested because after their struggles Sam and Frodo couldn’t die because readers wouldn’t have forgiven Tolkien. How do you get around that when the villain’s evil land is collapsing in some kind of metaphor about evil disappearing? It’s a tricky one. He could’ve had Mordor stay standing but getting the almost dead Hobbits from Mount Doom is still a tricky one. Would Tolkien have changed it in retrospect or if he’d had a computer to make editing easier? We’ll never know but he save his big cheat card for a key moment to save the characters he knew the audience didn’t want to lose.
It’s not that we can’t cheat, but we can’t cheat all the time.