Plot vs. Character

The old chicken/egg conundrum. Should a writer start with plot? Should a writer start with character?

There are stories that are predominately character driven. They’re heavy on introspection and slow of pace. What actually transpires in the story–and it may not be much–is less important than the feelings and reactions of the viewpoint characters.

THREE WOMEN AT THE WATER’S EDGE by Nancy Thayer is such a book. I haven’t read it in years, but I think it’s nearly all sequel with next-to-no actual scenes. It’s a wonderful novel. The viewpoint characters–two sisters and their mother–are sympathetic women trying to feel their way forward into achieving new lives and new perspectives about themselves.

Then there are stories that are predominately plot driven. They’re heavy on action and swift of pace. What transpires in the story–the external plot line, if you will–is all that matters. The feelings and reactions of the protagonist are barely registered. There’s next-to-no growth within the protagonist, and practically no arc of change for that character.

For an example: take your pick among any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. These books are driven by the story problem, the political dynamics, the cat-and-mouse suspense games, and the stunts. Readers have been fascinated by 007 for decades, but not because of his inner angst or dimensional growth. (His huge appeal operates instead on an entirely different writing principle.)

Another example would be THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. If you read that expecting to delve into the innermost workings of Sam Spade’s heart, you’ll be disappointed. If you read it for the mystery, the noir flavor, the convoluted twists and turns, and the quirky cast of character types, then it’s enjoyable.

My personal preference lies with stories that entwine character and plot so that I get two tales in one. There’s an internal story, with the protagonist being hit with some huge change in circumstances. The protagonist is then pushed from her comfort zone, forcing her to grow or adapt swiftly in order to cope with what’s happening. Her goal and decisions and attempts to solve her problem form the external story. Each story line–inner and outer–impinge on the other.

An example would be Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Elizabeth wants a husband. Because of that story goal, she attends a ball with the purpose of meeting and possibly attracting an eligible suitor. She meets Mr. Darcy and dislikes him on sight for his rude haughtiness toward her. Mr. Darcy’s opposing goal is that he does not want to be Elizabeth’s husband.

Every subsequent meeting delivers a clash of their strong personalities. Each clash works to alter their perceptions of each other until love wins over scandal, unequal social position, dreadful family members, and misunderstandings. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have grown as people while solving their various story problems.

Now, when writing or developing a story idea … whether you think of a plot event first or you choose to start with character design, what matters is that you understand the following two writing dynamics:

Plot derives from character goals and actions.

Character is altered by plot events and setbacks.


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4 responses to “Plot vs. Character

  1. I am very taken with the idea that the plot shapes the character as the character’s decisions shape the plot, each moving part wearing against the other until, at the end, they fit.

    One of the reasons I liked the newer Casino Royale is that 007 doesn’t start off all jaded and invulnerable, and we see him being shaped by his antagonists even as he ruins their plans. We see him move from “Do I look like I give a damn?” toward “Vodka martini, shaken. Not stirred.” We see him move from love toward cold rage, toward distrust. There’s a lot more to like (the low-bid defibrillator that’s miswired and fails was an awesome touch in the necesary-for-cover Aston Martin), but my favorite is the fact Bond is still human and the story isn’t just about political machinations and evil schemes’ details and empty sexual exploits. The story is, for once, about Bond.

    I often imagine what I want to happen in character evolution, but I have a very hard time making a plot arc to carry the transformation. When I try outlining chapters that contain the elements of the scene and the elements of the sequel, I find I’ve spent more effort writing than actual writing, and the result is dry as a bone, and it’s exhausting, and I have little life left to spin it into an organic-feeling scene. I’m certain I’m doing something wrong, but I haven’t seen someone’s example of an outline that worked (someone posted a chapter chart from JK Rowling, showing what was happening on-stage and off-screen in some of her chapters of one of the better books, and that chart was certainly interesting – but it doesn’t track scene or sequel elements, it tracks progress along parallel plot arcs). My current WIP needs to keep internal story logic while matching up with the timing of historical events, so I’m not free to just make everything up. I feel like there’s a tool somewhere to help, but I’m lost to imagine exactly what it is I’d like to be using.

    • I’m glad to learn that there’s a Bond film that shows a bit more depth than the usual fare. I’ll have to watch it some time. (Not that I don’t enjoy the usual Bond fare, too. I’ve been watching 007 since I was six years old.)

      As for your problem in the WIP, I’m not sure what to advise … except it sounds like you’re over-analyzing before you write. All this charting stuff is left-brained, editorial work. Writing stories should be right-brained, emotional work. I think you’re trying to force your brain to perform functions from both hemispheres simultaneously, and that just isn’t effective. It usually results in writer’s block and a lot of frustration.

      You have to write scenes and sequels from your heart (or your protagonist’s). It has to be done fast, from sheer gut instinct, carried on passion and sometimes channeling raw character emotion.

      Once the draft is written, it will be a hot mess. That’s when you start pulling out charts and figuring out how to line up the inner transformation with the outer one.

      You write hot, and then you put on the editorial hat and start reassessing the best parts and coping with the worst.

      A lot of work? Yeah, it is. But if you’re writing scenes tentatively and from a plan that’s too careful, you’ll get the dead prose that you’ve mentioned. I sat down last night to write an opening chapter of a work I’ve been planning and developing for months. It was deader than the proverbial mackerel. That’s because I was writing from my mind, and following the plot points in my outline.

      I’ll throw that away. The next draft will be maybe just as bad. The draft after that should get me into the heart of my beleaguered boy protagonist. Then I’ll start to get somewhere.


  2. Left vs Right

    I assumed that the point of the outlining was to ensure the overall structure matched the need to have things like a turning point in the middle and a climax that forced the protagonist to make a defining choice, while wrapping up all the loose ends that aren’t intended to seed future plotlines. I was sure all the goals, motives, and so on had to be engineered and would not result from accident. But sounds like perhaps this left-brained design exercise is not really what you had in mind, and I’m missing a key point.

    Is the outline an exercise for post-draft rewrites? I had the impression it was the map to the first draft, to ensure it stayed on course. Without an outline I fear running off the rails. I seat-of-the-pantsed a novel years ago and realized, when I was done, that I wouldn’t pay for it and that I didn’t know how to fix it. The problems were so serious in conception that I’m not sure it can be done without deep re-engineering. I haven’t gone back and outlined it, but I suspect strongly that it didn’t do the things one’s supposed to do when writing a craft-driven novel. At the time I wrote it I thought its single problem was a failure to make the main character’s hard choice more transparent so the reader could understand and believe his transformation. But the craft issues in the book were deeper and wider.

    Are character sheets with goals and their opposition the boss, and plotlines their servants, crafted after? I’m having trouble figuring what characteristics to track in my current WIP’s characters. My sheets seem to draw attention to things that don’t shape plot.

    In my WIP, part of the transformation is the narrator’s change in motivations and goals as the character gets perspective on the world. The plot has to force this, because the narrator would rather enjoy comfort and not be forced into change. I definitely want to write a plot/character novel, not one or the other. But I feel many chapters have a character focus that makes half the readers feel it’s slow. I’m struggling with how to speed the feel of the scenes.

  3. No, you outline first and work out all the foreseeable kinks in the plot and what you initially think your character arc will be. Once that’s done, you then write the draft from inside the protagonist, emotionally and fast.

    Goal drives everything.


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