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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