Plot or Characters—Which Matters More?

Authors often deride plot-driven books in favor of focusing on character development. However, focusing on characters over plot can leave a reader asking, “What’s the point?” The characters and the plot are actually integral pieces of one another.

A complaint many reviewers have is that the novels they review are lacking in story or plot, especially in books by first-time authors. Beginning authors often enjoying creating comical, quirky, or interesting characters, and strong, well-rounded characters are definitely integral to a book because they are whom the reader will identify with. Too often, however, authors overlook the importance of creating a strong plot centered in the character and instead create episodic stories that read like a character’s biography.

Stories that are “plot-driven” have gotten a bit of a bad name in recent years. Think of all the car-chase type movies and the special effects used in films that are about the plot more than the characters. If the characters aren’t well-developed, readers aren’t going to identify with them; these films and many action/adventure/suspense books have focused so much on the plot that we lose interest in the characters, and if we don’t care about the characters, then we don’t care what happens to them or to the plot.

A good plot is just as important as interesting characters, but the plot needs to be integral to the characters. Emphasis on plot and characters are really inseparable for a piece of fiction to be successful. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that life does not have a plot and we should create realistic fiction, but I beg to differ that plots are unrealistic. People who feel life doesn’t have a plot often have not chosen a plot, a path, a purpose yet in their lives. They tend to be boring people. What makes our lives interesting is when we have dreams, plans, goals, and difficulties to overcome. However much we might like certain characters, they aren’t interesting unless we have a reason to cheer them on, to hope they succeed.

The bottom line is that good fiction requires that the plot and the main character be intertwined. The plot is essential to the main character. In writing a story or novel, the author must ask him or herself, “What is at stake?” and more specifically, “What is at stake for the main character?” The reader needs to know what really matters in the first chapter, preferably on the first page; the tension created by something being at stake is what will keep readers turning the page.

What is at stake for the main character can be something as simple as deciding what college to go to or as serious as having his child kidnapped. Whatever is at stake has to be something so important to the main character that it spurs him or her on to action. The main character also has to be developed so he or she will react in a believable way to what is at stake. And if that can be done creatively, all the better.

For example, in a bank robbery situation, if the main character is a middle-aged housewife who has never done anything heroic in her life and is afraid of mice and everything else she encounters, it makes no sense for her to tackle the bank robber. However, if the main character is a little old lady, while she may not seem likely to take out the bank robber, if she is developed to have an interesting past, such as she was part of the French Resistance during World War II and shot some Nazis, then she might just have it in her to tackle the bank robber. The little old lady’s heroic action is not out of character while the housewife’s might be.

A good plot will make readers unable to put down the book because they will want to find out what happens next, how it’s all going to turn out, and they will care enough about the main character to want to see him or her succeed. What is at stake for the characters might also be something that is at stake or has been at stake for the reader. Trying to find your place in the community, trying to find love, trying to succeed at something difficult are all situations the everyday person encounters and which will help the reader identify with the character.

A well-known novel that successfully weaves plot and character together is “Gone With the Wind.” Here, Scarlett O’Hara is the main character. The plot includes survival during the Civil War and also Scarlett trying to find love and figure out which man she loves. Although Scarlett O’Hara is not the most likeable character, readers can relate to her quest for love and survival, and they understand that the decisions she makes are based in her need to survive; she wants love, but she has to choose survival, which means marrying men she doesn’t love but who have money to save her plantation. That the man she loves is unavailable to her adds fuel and a small degree of acceptability to her actions.

For authors planning to write a novel, I suggest you start by creating an interesting character. Then ask the following questions for creating the plot:

What is most important to the character?
What does the character want in life? What are his or her goals, desires, or dreams?
What does the character most fear?
How could that fear interfere with the characters dreams and goals?
What would the character do if what is most important to him or her were threatened by what he or she feared most?
What obstacles would the character have to overcome to make things better or return things to normal?
What is within the character’s nature and within the range of reasonable possibilities that can lead to a resolution of the problem?

A good plot will not only cause a character to take action, but it will help the character to grow and change, often in surprising, but ultimately affirming ways.

In writing a novel, don’t forget the character development, and don’t forget the plot, and especially, don’t forget that they are really one and the same.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.