Monday, October 5, 2009

Plot or Characters?

“One reason we read fiction is our hope that we will be moved by it, finding characters we can enjoy and sympathize with.” John Gardner

The formula for any great novel looks something like this:

Outstanding, Realistic Characters
+ Fantastic, Page-turning plot
Breakout Novel with Staying Value

The oldest debate among the fiction community is which is more important—characters or plot? Does the equation look more like 2+2 or 3+1 or 1+3? While characters and plot are not mutually exclusive, meaning you can’t have a novel without both, does one matter more than the other?

In my personal opinion, one does matter more than the other. Characters are the starting and jump off point for any novel. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, “In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story.” Plot is formed around the characters. Plot moves, changes, etc from the actions/reactions of said characters. Plot is important, but without the characters to bring it to life, it is nothing.

Take the book, Little Women, for example. Yes, I know it is not suspense, but a suspense novel would not illustrate my point as well. In the novel, we follow the story of four sisters. Throughout the novel, not much happens, and yet so much does. It spans the course of years, in fact. Although not much out of the ordinary happens to this family, we are pulled in by the characters and their strong personalities. The quiet strength of Marmie and Meg. The stubbornness and impulsiveness of Jo. The middle-child—laid back Beth. And of course the frivolous, yet kind-hearted Amy. These characters stand out to us because they are so different from each other, yet because of their connection, the plot comes about naturally. It keeps us turning the pages.

I remember being forced to read Little Women by my mom several years ago. I didn’t want to read it. Classics, by definition, usually bored me to sleep. I was not, still am not largely, fond of the classic style of writing. I am one of those people who can’t stand pages of description, exposition, etc. But, I sat down on my daybed and started reading. If I remember right, I finished the novel in three days. I was enthralled by the intricacies of each character and how they grew and changed over the course of the book.

In the same context, look at Lord of the Rings, a faster paced, more action-oriented novel series. This is a wonderful story with a rather complicated plot that covers the pages of several books. I have never read the series, being as I can’t stand Tolkien’s writing style. However, even from the movies, I can tell that it is the characters that make this story. The individuals who aren’t afraid to stand up for their own beliefs. The ones who exhibit courage beyond what we ourselves may be capable of. The ones who take on the responsibility of leadership, even if they would like to remain in the background. Those who cared. Those who stood out among their race for whatever extraordinary personality trait they possessed. Sometimes I wish I could stand Tolkien’s writing style.

So over the next several posts, I plan to explore what makes characters come alive, how to make them stand out, and most importantly, how to make them memorable. I’ll leave you with the following quote:

“The reader reads fiction more for its people than for any other element, whether plot, setting, or shock value. Readers associate characters in fiction with their own lives and with their own experience. They will even name their children after fictional characters. . . . The novel is the people that are in it.” William Sloane

Who are some of your favorite characters and why?


  1. I love that last quote and I totally agree with you. Characters make the book. I have read many novels that have a similar plot--and you know what? I didn't mind that I'd already read a story similar to it, as long as the characters were fresh and relatable and I wanted to see them make it through.

  2. I just finished Jeff Gerke's book a couple weeks ago and (not surprisingly) he agrees with you. He is a plot driven writer, as I seem to be, so we have to work a little harder to make sure those characters come alive on the page... but it is the people that make the story memorable, that give it heart, that give the reader a place to connect emotionally.

  3. never responded to my email! Do you remember meeting Christina Berry at the conference?

  4. Cindy--I def don't mind that either as long as the characters are exciting and new.

    Lee--Yeah, I've noticed I'm a lot more plot-driven in my first drafts, but I try to take care of that in my revisions.

    Tamara--Yes, I met Christina Berry. It took us both until the last day to remember who it was that mentioned me to her. lol... But, hey, it was nice to meet someone who had "heard" about me.

  5. This is a great post! I wondered what the consenus was on character versus plot. I believe my work is character driven, the plot is livened by whatever they choose to do or not do. Learning people are such an engorssing adventure.

    Thanks for the insight!

  6. Hey! I'm finally back to your blog to check out your response. Good, I'm glad it felt nice to be 'known'!


Thank you for taking the time to leave your thoughts/opinions.