plot or character

Plot vs. Character: Which Is More Important?

Authors debate plot vs. character, as if the two were gladiators, waging war on the sands of the Coliseum in some winner-take-all death battle. Both sides of the debate claim a definitive superiority for their chosen gladiator, and for the most part, the battle splits nicely down the lines of literary and commercial fiction, the commercialists placing the emphasis on plot in the interest of producing “page turners,” while the literati poke up their noses at the thought of anything so crude and artless. So who’s right?

As in most conflicts, there is a conclusive answer. But, in this instance, it isn’t an answer held by either set of extremists. Rather, it’s the answer held by both. The simple fact is that fiction requires both plot and character to achieve its full potential. One could argue convincingly from both sides of the subject: 1) that stories originated from plot (first this happens, which then causes this to happen); or 2) that stories originated from character (this person did this and that person did that). But why bother with such an argument, when, by focusing on both facets, we can produce a story that contains both a riveting plot and a fascinating character?

It’s unfortunate that many within the literary world have decided that stories must be either character stories or plot stories, when, in fact, the two are symbionts. It’s very true that storytelling originally focused more on plot and has evolved over the years to put more emphasis on character. In his book Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card elucidates:

Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have led many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be “good.”… Character stories have been so dominant that they have forced storytellers in the other traditions to pay more attention to characterization. Even though a story…. is not about a transformation of character… the readers still expect to get to know the characters; and even when they don’t expect it, they are willing to allow the author to devote a certain amount of attention to the character without regarding it as a digression. This is the fashion of our time, and you can’t disregard it.

But neither can we disregard plot, as pointed out in Lev Grossman’s article “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard”:

Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen…. But let’s look back for a second at where the Modernists came from, and what exactly they did with the novel…. One of the things they broke was plot. To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to….

In writer’s groups, writing forums, query letters, and agent interviews, we’re often asked to pigeonhole our stories on one side or the other of the plot vs. character controversy. It’s true that most writers, depending on the individual manner in which they approach inspiration and organization, put at least a slight emphasis on one or the other. And there is nothing wrong with this—no matter where that emphasis lands. But this is no reason to focus on one to the exclusion of the other. Fiction is about balance—in so many ways—and certainly nowhere more so than in the matter of plot vs. character. Good writing should not be about pitting plot against character, but rather about finding the harmony between them.

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I am writing genre fiction, but I don’t think you can give plot more importance than the characters. They are both important. All of my favourite books include plots that move and characters who fascinate me.

  2. So well said – and such a good reminder. Even a someone who intellectually knows I want to balance character and plot, there are times when I’ll allow a character to hijack my story and tell his tale, without regard for plot, or even the other cahracters. So this is a timely reminder we all must consider.

  3. Great Post! I too think that both are important and not just one or the other. In the book I am currently working on, (my first attempt at writing a book.) I came up with the plot first and then the characters. I could see from the beginning that my plot was jam packed with twists and climatic elements and realized that my characters needed to live up to my plot line. Thus, I have tried my best to make my characters as in depth, intriguing, and as real to the reader as possible and make them as amazing and interesting as the plot line itself. After all, a book is about characters and how they live. If the characters aren’t interesting, what’s the point in reading it?! lol!

    For me, If a book has only a strong plot but poorly written characters or vise versa, I don’t feel as thrilled or impressed by it. I like the books I read to feel balanced. I like finding out new pieces of info about the characters as well as being let in on a new road block or tid-bit and juicy detail that the characters have yet to find out about in the plot.

    Like you said, I think both characters and plot line are important. It’s like pb&j. You can’t really have one without the other. They go hand in hand. :)

    Many Blessings!
    Jessica

  4. Good post! I will try to remember to make characters and plots drive my stories with equal force. Sometimes I lean toward making characters drive the story, just because I can be irritated with books that are so plot-driven that it seems the characters are dull and lifeless. However, you are right that both characters and plot are important. I suppose I should work on that.

    By the way, here’s the link to my blog article you asked for a while ago: http://writersthoughts-brianna.blogspot.com/2010/02/why-tell-story.html (I FINALLY finished it last week! :D)

  5. @Wanderer: Genre and literary fiction each have their pitfalls. As long as we’re aware of them, we can avoid them successfully.

    @Gray: There’s so much to remember in writing! But the good news is that the longer we do it, the more instinctive it becomes.

    @Jessica: I like the the PB&J analogy. Leave out the jelly, and our stories are likely to get very sticky!

    @Brianna: Thanks so much for remembering to share the link. Lovely article!

  6. Very well put! I have a hard time characterizing my novel as plot or character driven. It’s simply both. And I agree- it’s necessary to have both in a successful story these days. I put books down if there’s no plot or if the characters are stagnant.

  7. I think most authors are stronger in one or the other–either they are natural plotters, or naturally good at characterization. Whichever they excel at, though, they should work on the other to create balance.

    It’s been my experience that the books strong in both areas are the ones that earn a permanent place on my shelf, and are the books I read over and over. If a book is all plot, I will read through to find out what happened, and then toss it aside because I have nothing invested in the character so no reason to return to the story. On the other hand, if the book is all character, I won’t read it again either. Why relive meeting someone to whom nothing happens?

    But if I fall in love with the characters, I will ride with them on their well-plotted adventures over and over again :).

  8. People call my stuff “character-driven” an I suppose that’s what it is, but, everything must have a plot or else it’s just a bunch of words, I suppose. But, my stuff, I wouldn’t call it strong on Plot Lines… I read “character driven” and “plot driven” but if I don’t feel invested in the character enough to want to follow them, I’m probably not going to read the book.

  9. @Stephanie: If yours is both, then congrats! You must have a very engaging story on your hands.

    @Kat: I agree. Character-driven books are the ones I remember most often as well. I think I’m a natural plotter – but, because characters are the reason I’m interested in plotting to begin with, it’s easier for me to balance the two.

  10. @Kathryn: Characters are the heart of any story, but I guess I envision plot as the roadmap for the characters to follow.

  11. My characters surprise me all the time. I lay out a plot for them, and then they act on their own. Which is rather nice, because it makes them come alive.
    Thank you for your inspiring and thought-provoking blog.

  12. In my experience, it’s always a good thing when characters are alive enough to take over a story!

  13. Well said. Some of the “How to write” books I’ve read say that there can only be plot driven fiction or character driven fiction—not both of them in the same book. But when I’m reading, I want the story to have the pair. One without the other is just boring.

  14. I tend to gravitate toward the character driven side of the argument–because it’s what I love and what I enjoy reading. I would prefer to fall in love with the characters and follow their journey, even if it’s not hugely full of twists and turns, than to whip through a book because the plot moved so quickly but forget about it the moment I set it down because there was nothing to take away.

    I’m impressed with authors who can do both and am striving toward that happy medium in my new WIP.

    P.S. I didn’t know Orson Scott Card had a book on the craft, I’m definitely going to have to look at that. He does an excellent job at marrying craft with interesting characters.

  15. @Lorna: Oh, I absolutely don’t believe you have to pick between the two.

    @Cindy: I’m only halfway through OSC’s book, but so far it’s excellent.

  16. I’m for character over plot, only because it’s what I prefer to read. But I absolutely agree: the best books combine character and plot.

    People just have to fight over something, don’t they?

    :)

    Corra

    from the desk of a writer

  17. Oh, life (and fiction) wouldn’t be as interesting without some conflict, I suppose. And I certainly wouldn’t have as much to blog about!

  18. I like that… and really try to find that harmony in my writing.

  19. Great post! Both are extremely important. If you don’t feel a connection with the characters, then there is no point in continuing. If there is not plot, there is no point in continuing. You need both to make a great book.
    I’m new to this blogging world and love that I am able to connect with so many other writers. I just finished my first YA MS. Come by and check out my blog if you get a chance…

  20. @Kristen: It’s something we’re all in various stages of working on!

    @Tiffany: Well said. Heading off to check out your blog!

  21. I can’t write the book until I know the characters. When I get stuck, it’s usually because I’m forcing my characters to do things they don’t “want” to do.

    But there still has to be a plot. I do find, however, that characters I love in a mediocre story will keep me reading, whereas characters I don’t like have me either skimming or putting the book down, even with a good plot.

  22. Usually, if I know my characters well enough, the plot just falls into place. The characters take over and start telling *me* what’s supposed to happen.

  23. Another great post!

    I don’t think it’s possible to have one without the other in a well written novel. I need something to keep me turning the pages, and I need a character to relate to – goes hand-in-hand ;o)

  24. Couldn’t agree more. When both character and plot are working perfect harmony – wowsers!

  25. “It’s unfortunate that many within the literary world have decided that stories must be either character stories or plot stories, when, in fact, the two are symbionts.”

    That pretty much says it all, in my opinion. Excellent post!

  26. I think we often complicate storytelling unnecessarily. At its heart, it’s very simple: just tell the best story you can! And, usually, that best story involves both plot and character.

  27. I would have to say a bit of both, I am currently working on a suspense thriller so the character is super important, but the scene also has to be set up nicely…

  28. If anything, I would say most thrillers are plot-heavy, so focusing on character means you’re likely to produce a very balanced whole!

  29. I’ve come to this debate late, but definitely agree that character creates plot and plot is the furnace where character is forged and changed. That’s why a great story feels like a real journey.

  30. I’ve always liked the imagery of a “forge,” both as the crucible in a story’s climax, and as the melting pit of creativity, when we’re crafting characters and plot.

  31. I notice that you place great emphasis on balance in your commentary – balance in between plot and character, character competition, etc. I think that’s the true test of a writer, to maintain it. It’s much like the rigor of a haiku. If you submit to certain limits on how you construct your work, you find an almost paradoxical freedom. Everything becomes possible. A good lesson to keep in mind.

  32. There are always two sides to an argument and, in my experience, the truth is often found somewhere in the middle.

  33. I say it all the time to writers when I do panels at conventions…

    “Story is that magical baby that happens when plot and character get together in a relationship.”

  34. Ooh, I like! Gonna have to remember that one.

  35. Brilliant post – as always! :)

    I was just thinking about this last night, trying to decide which drove my stories more. I ended up being baffled. Usually I think my characters become so integral to the plot that the one would collapse without the other. Even in my thriller and mystery novels, the characters are as important as the plot. (I hope!) :)

  36. If you’re baffled, it’s probably a good sign in this instance! At first glance, I would always say my stories are character-driven, because character is where it all starts for me. But, after a closer look at how my stories are structured, it’s obvious they’re very plot driven as well.

  37. I completely agree – neither plot nor characters can live up to their greatest potential without the other. Thanks for the insight!

  38. It’s like action and reaction – or cause and effect. Can’t have one without the other.

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