Characters vs. Plot

Plot-vs-CharacterThese two driving elements of fiction have been arising debates between writers since the beginning of the twentieth century, if not earlier. Some claim a gripping plot attracts more readers; others seem keen to prove that it’s characters who cause the plot in the first place. As was promised in this entry, I will tell you why characters are more important than the plot.

Well, to start with, they aren’t. Not really, anyway.

For an abstract reader, it doesn’t matter which one of those story parts caused more writing torments. A mind-boggling plot and a charismatic protagonist both have huge chances of making a book memorable. I’ve read novels I couldn’t sleep until finishing, and I can’t recall a thing about their “cast”. On the other hand, I couldn’t sleep until I’ve finished some novels predictable as Hollywood films, just because I liked the heroes so much.

You must be thinking, “hang on a minute, you said that characters are more important than the plot”. I did, and we are getting there.

While imaginary people in your book may not appear any more significant than imaginary events to a reader, a writer sees the story from a different perspective. In the controversy of something-focused fiction, the goal is to determine, which type is easier to make attention-drawing, and, yes, the winner is the character-focused one.

I’m going to brag a little here, but I don’t believe it’s some sort of a great talent, so here we go: I am a very good plot predictor. As soon as I know what the conflict is, I know the ending as well, to some extent. That is if the author didn’t decide to surprise the readers at the end for the sake of surprise, throwing a nuclear bomb into a wedding cake in a romance novel, or something. Anyway, there are some uncanny golden rules of how good—or just conventional—stories work, such as those that say there shouldn’t be a nuclear bomb in a wedding cake at the end of a romance novel, and I doubt I’m the only one who knows them.

For the group of readers I relate to, it’s tricky to engage with an unpredictable plot. In addition, from my own experience, plot-predictors are plot-predictors partly because they don’t focus on plots that much.

What about characters, then? Technically, they are even more predictable, especially if you’re a psychologist. But their appeal, luckily, is not predictability. They draw with charm and realism.

Now, I will step away a little from the character-plot debate because I’ve recently found a number of aspiring writers who oppose to creating charismatic characters so as to make them more “real”. Realistic by no means implies typical! Realistic characters are three-dimensional people with flaws, virtues, hidden desires, guilty pleasures, and a sound collection of quirks and mannerisms. Doesn’t look dull, does it? And remember, the reader will be stuck with the main characters to the end. Who would you rather be stuck with?

Moving on.

I’m not saying that making up a fun-to-be-stuck-with three-dimensional characters is an easy task. Arguably, it’s more challenging than “plotting”. You simply get a larger chance of creating a memorable story. Some—okay, a lot—of the readers read for the sake of what’s going on rather than who suffers from all that, and the annotations incline to describe the events in the book, not the characters, yet it just so happens that seemingly underestimated character element is the one that works for everybody. Fan-fiction proves it: the idea basically is to put your favourite heroes into situations different from that in the original story, prolonging their life in the imagination.

So should we or should we not write character-focused fiction?

Again, a debatable question. A number of accomplished writers like to start their ideas from characters, asking themselves, “What would happen if X did this?” Me, I can’t work like that. I come up with settings and characters either entirely separately, or in connection to plot and theme. Which is probably because a character severed from the story is a static portrait to my mind: he exists, and nothing happens.

Clearly, not all artists think in this way, but I still feel this tinge of static action—a paradox in itself—when reading something purely character-focused. Yes, character-focused means that the main events in the story are to do with character development, but lately, I can’t find a lot development of any sort in that fiction. As you might have noticed, I do prefer personal growth in the books I read to blockbusterous explosions, yet I still crave for some intrigue rather than a mysterious title and “so what” (though some would say I’m exaggerating, and they would probably be right; sorry, Murakami, it just isn’t my thing). And there is no need recounting what is wrong with purebred plot-focused stories. Applying my favourite metaphor on this subject, I feel like I’ve been watching a game of chess.

So no, we shouldn’t focus our attention selectively, not in my opinion. Instead of dumping more fuel into the fire of character versus plot debate, why don’t we just make those two unalienable elements of fiction help each other out?

Plots are dry, characters are static—when separated.

And for today, my advice for the plot-favoured side of the debate is this: before writing a full-scale synopsis or better yet, a draft of a novel, know your characters. The minor ones including. After all, they really are making the plot, at least a part of it, and you can’t force them into doing what they wouldn’t. Knowing the characters, apart from supporting plot development, also saves a considerable amount of rewriting. When fleshing out your heroes, you may find yourself rearranging the scenes, or even changing them entirely, in which case I should congratulate you on designing three-dimensional and quite possibly attractive characters.

As to character-focused fiction writers, don’t neglect plot. You might get away with it since people love good characters, but spending some more time on what happens in the story will broaden the audience considerably.


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