Plot or Characters?

I’ll admit, I’m more plot driven than character driven, but I learned early on that it doesn’t matter how good a plot might be if the readers don’t care about the characters, that book isn’t one they’ll remember or maybe even finish reading. And if I manipulate my characters so I can achieve the plot I want, I’ll really lose my readers. Therefore, even though the plot is very important to me, I must always remember to build the story so it’s one where the characters act and react in ways that are reasonable…not just ways that will get me to my next plot point.

This means, if I’ve mapped out a story line where a woman in her seventies fights a gang of young men and wins, I need to create a character who can make this is believable. She must have the skills as well as the mental determination to do battle. And I must create a believable situation where a confrontation of this nature would occur.

I’m afraid I’ve read too many stories (mostly unpublished, but a few that were self-published or even traditionally published) where the writer didn’t take this need into consideration. These writers had their protagonist, male or female, suddenly do something totally contrary to character or their abilities. They use coincident to bring people together. Miraculously provide the characters with needed weapons. Provide lucky breaks. Give the character an unexpected ability.

Where this need to manipulate the story rather than having it flow from within the characters is most evident is when the characters’ dialogue doesn’t sound realistic. When one character asks a question that is clearly a way to gain a response that will move the story in a certain direction. Or another character doesn’t answer a posed question but, instead, leads the conversation in the direction needed (by the writer) to move the story where it should go.

Plot outlines are wonderful, but when a writer is so set in how the story must go that he or she manipulates the characters so the outline can be followed (with no alterations), the result is a weak or unbelievable story. I also believe that writer’s block, for some people, is caused by trying to manipulate characters to fit a storyline rather than allowing the character’s personality and abilities to direct the story. I know that happened to me once. I wanted a love scene on page x, but to get that love scene, I had to create a situation where the male and female would be together. So I forced the situation only to find I couldn’t write the scene. For days I tried, but I always failed. It wasn’t until I thought about my male character, what his beliefs were and why, did I realize I couldn’t have the love scene that early in the story. Once I realized that, I was able to write a sensual, romantic scene where both characters learned more about each other so later, when the timing was more appropriate, the love scene flowed naturally.

Being a plotter is fine, but don’t forget it’s the characters people will remember.

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12 Responses to Plot or Characters?

  1. For me it’s ALWAYS the characters who come first, which is why I don’t even bother with outlines. I never follow them because the characters take over and tell their own story. The events in the book I am working on now are nothing like I pictured how the story would go when I started it. The only thing bothering me is that there were certain things I wanted to happen in this book and now they won’t. I remind myself that I just can’t have every single little plot take place in my story or I will end up with a 1000 page book! I just have to let the story happen the way it happens and save all those other great plot ideas for future books.

  2. Connie Bretes says:

    I agree with you Maris, without understanding the characters and their feelings and reactions, I don’ think you’d understand the plot very well. Thanks for sharing!

    • Maris Soule says:

      It took me a while, Connie, to realize the outline had to be flexible, that once I created the characters–their strengths and weaknesses–they would determine how the story progressed.

  3. Diane Burton says:

    I agree with you, Maris. I love action/adventure but only with characters I can believe in and like. I just read an interesting blog about foreshadowing. The authors of the books you mentioned would have done well to read it.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I think I also read that blog, Diane, and it was absolutely right. You can’t have things happen in a story if you haven’t set the stage ahead of time.

  4. The Homeland TV series must hire new writers to plot each episode–because they forget who the characters are supposed to be. It is as if their bodies were invaded by different souls.

  5. Character is key. We have to really know them well and as you observe not have them go against who and what they are. A well-written plot is important, but the characters need to be ones that readers can relate to because they seem so real.

    • Maris Soule says:

      That “writer’s block” I mentioned, Jacqueline, certainly showed me how a well developed character will (and should) direct the action, not the writer.

  6. Lucy Kubash says:

    Whether I’m writing or reading, it’s always about the characters for me. While I enjoy a great plot (it’s the hardest part of writing fiction for me and something I must work on) I can forgive a less than intriguing plot if I love the characters in a story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Lucy, I think most readers feel the same as you. Plot inconsistencies really bother me, but not as much as flat, unappealing characters.