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Character vs. Plot, Part 1

I love books with intricate interwoven plots that keep me on the edge of my seat. When I write, I focus a lot on what happens and when. How do I get from point A to point B? Figuring out the steps and how to set up the actions so that everything flows is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing for me. I’m what you’d call a plotter.

Two things recently happened to remind me that a cool, twisty plot was nowhere near enough to write a great book.

First, I heard a story on the radio that made me think about a book I had written and was already released. I realized I hadn’t made my villain bad or scary enough. I had missed a chance to deepen his personality and make the protagonists’ situation more dangerous. Had I done so, it would have strengthened the bond they needed to develop with each other, to evade him and bolster their desire to risk their lives going up against him.

Second, when I realized that, something else clicked into place for me. Reading book reviews (and comments on reviews) I notice readers tend to focus their enjoyment of a book on the characters and how they felt about them, rather than the actual storyline. Sure, you need a realistic plot, but I find myself coming back to books with characters I love, no matter what happens to them (well, up to a point). But if I like the characters, I’ll keep reading the series unless it gets way off track or the characters start acting in ways that don’t make sense. (Janet Evanovich, are you listening?) I guess we’ll let James Bond and Indiana Jones get away with some crazy plots only because we love them.

So which is more important? Do readers care what happens? Sometimes, if it’s merely an interesting plot, but always when they care about the characters first.

I also noticed a reader posting on a fellow author’s Facebook page, raving about how much she loved the characters in the latest release. It reminded me of my own recent experience as a reader,—though just the opposite. I read a second title by an author whose first book really captivated me and made me care what happened to the guys, but her latest left me flat. The plot was intricate and detailed, but she failed in getting me to connect with the characters, no matter how cool the rest of the story was.

It prompted me to go back to the drawing board develop my characters more fully first. Only then do I start focusing on what is going to happen to them. It allows me to flesh my characters out a lot more and deepen their personalities through the plot.

How do you go about doing that? And how do plot and character intersect? The secret of integrating plot and character is to look at it this way: plot happens to characters. How the characters act or react depends on who they are: character affects the plot. Two different personalities will respond to the exact same situation in two different ways. Design your characters with the plot in mind and you’ll get amazing results.

You want to write about a plane crash? What kind of people are going to be affected in dramatically different ways? A woman whose son is a pilot is going to deal with it differently than a lawyer who works for the airline. Put those two characters together and you can see all sorts of ways the plot can throw them into conflict.

But plot also affects character, resulting in an internal change. You want to develop fully formed characters, but they can and should change during the story based on the plot events. The two elements interact and can often be at odds. A good man forced to do something bad to help someone else. An introvert who overcomes his own fears to win a lover. The guy who turns back just before he achieves his goal to save someone, even though he risks losing his own dream. Bad things happen to good people and good people are never the same.

Let’s look at the plane crash idea again. The airline lawyer meets the injured pilot’s mother and now he sees everything differently. His idea of right and wrong shifts when his personal and professional priorities come into conflict. This character ends up a different man at the end of the story because of what happened.

So don’t think of character and plot as “either/or” because you need both, and the best stories blend both components to make a structure stronger than either good characters or an amazing plot alone can achieve.

I’ll be addressing how to do that next time around.

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One Comment

  1. Very good article thanks!


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