Adding complexity to a plot that involves just two characters

by Charlotte
(Victoria, Australia )

Question: I'm in the process of writing a novel that revolves around a teenager struggling to survive after her plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. She is one of two survivors- the other being an ex soldier acting as the archetypical Mentor. There are no other characters involved other than in the very beginning and the very ending (the crash and the eventual escape). My question is this: how do I make a plot involving only two characters seem realistic? How do I add subplot to a story that contains no side characters? How can I make what could easily become a superficial and 2D plot into a complex and real story?

Some additional information to aid in answering:
- it is first person with only a single perspective (the female protagonist)
- there are no other 'angles' to explore such as the rescue effort or the grieving family
- the mentor dies at the end of the second act
- it is set in the remote wilderness so there is no chance of the character encountering a stranger

Answer: First, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with having just two characters for the bulk of your story. Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea comes to mind as an example.

However, your question seems to be based on deliberately boxing yourself in and then complaining that you're in a box.

For instance, you ask "How do I add subplot to a story that contains no side characters?" Subplots usually are included to provide a different perspective or illustrate a different aspect of a theme or to make a minor character's actions understandable.

If there are "no other angles to explore," then why do you want a subplot?

If you do want a subplot because you have an angle to explore, then you create the characters you need for it -- bearing in mind that characters can sometimes be imaginary or people in the main character's memories. Animals can sometimes be characters too, especially if the main character sees them that way.

Similarly, if any of your choices stands in the way of the story you want to tell, you are at liberty to rethink them.

Making the story "realistic" is not related to the number of characters. Realism comes from the authenticity of your description of the experience.

I think your real difficulty becomes clear when you say, "How can I make what could easily become a superficial and 2D plot into a complex and real story?"

Adding depth to a story does not come from more characters. It comes from developing the four perspectives or throughlines. It comes from taking your character on an inner journey as well as an outer.

The four throughlines are...

1. Overall: the external plot involving all the characters and the pursuit of the story goal -- in your case, getting back to civilization or surviving.

2. Main character: the story of the main character's growth. How is your main character pressured to change from the person she is in the beginning to the person she will be in the end? Will she change or will she grow more steadfast in her approach?

3. Impact character: This throughline concerns a character who represents an approach opposite to the main character's. In your case, it will be the arc of the ex-soldier's influence on the main character. He should have a very different way of doing things than she does, and this throughline will show how he pressures her to adopt his approach. (Note: his approach may or may not be the right one.)

4. Relationship: How will the relationship between these two characters evolve over the course of the story? (Even if he dies, the relationship can continue by proxy.)

Each of these throughlines needs to have its own story arc, its own series of events that goes like this...

Setup: Show how things stand in the beginning.

Complications: Show how things are changing, becoming more complicated.

Crisis: Show how the throughline reaches a crisis, a turning point.

Resolution: Show how things stand in the end, how they have changed.

You only need two characters to develop all four throughlines, which you have.

Best of luck.

Comments for Adding complexity to a plot that involves just two characters

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Dec 14, 2014
by: Charlotte

Thanks for the answer, it really helped.
I've gone over what I have written and I think I'll make some use of flashback to bring in other characters - especially when she is alone at the end and there is little opportunity for dialogue.
Your answer was really in depth and helped me understand that perhaps I can think a little bit outside the box.

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