Plot vs. Character: Which is the main course of your novel?

Can you carry a story with a strong plot if your characters are weak and two-dimensional? Can you have a publishable book with strong, three-dimensional characters but no plot? There are those authors who swear that the plot is what drives their book and there are those who swear it is the characters they so lovingly crafted. It seems to be a case of which came first – the chicken or the egg? Which is more important to your novel – the plot or the characters?

Crafting a well paced plot is a matter of art. Anyone can get a character from point A to point B, by having them walk down a street. A skillful author will have them walk with a purpose; amble about aimlessly; saunter into a room; slither down a hallway; race toward a goal, run from disaster, and so on. Plot is the action of the story, true, but it is more than that as well. It is the motivation for the character’s behavior. It is the reason this character came into being in the first place. There is a problem, a conflict that needs to be resolved. Enter the character who not only has this problem/conflict, but who is also the only one who can solve this conflict and do it in a way that entertains the reader and draws the reader into the story. Without the plot, you have a great, 3 dimensional character who is sitting around twiddling his thumbs…well, no, not twiddling his thumbs because that would be a plot – you would have a bored character; what is his motivation for being where he is? Why doesn’t he get up and do something? What could he be waiting for? Do you see where I’m going here? The plot may well be the action of the story, but without a character for the reader to care about and invest emotion in, there is no one to spring to action; no one to sit still and be bored; no one for the reader to wonder about. Try telling a story without a single, believable character and I guarantee you won’t get far. So are the characters the meat and potatoes of the novel?

We’ve talked before about creating 3 dimensional characters. They need to have a personality, motivation, background information, and so on and so on. But, what is the one, single, most important aspect of a character if your novel is going to work? They need to have a problem, an inciting incident, a call to action. They need to grow in some way, learn some lesson, solve a conflict, overcome an issue or something to that effect. If your character is truly 3 dimensional, there will be something he or she wants; some intrinsic conflict that needs to be solved that the reader will care enough about to stick around and find out how the character solves it. That conflict is the driving force of your plot! If you take a character who has nothing to learn, no way to grow and nothing to do, then you have a book about a perfect person (already unbelievable) who is just sitting there staring at a wall.

In his book “Hooked” Les Edgerton talks about the beginning of a story; how the first scene in a novel should be an inciting incident that happens to the protagonist. He says:

“…the inciting incident is the event that creates the character’s initial surface problem and introduces the first inklings of the story-worthy problem. In essence, this is the “action” part of the story, the part that is plot-based. This happens to the protagonist, then he does this to resolve it, then this and so on.”

In other words, the beginning of the story may be plot-based, but if there is no one for the plot to be about, then there is nowhere for the plot to go. There has to be somebody there to take action to resolve the story-worthy problem. So the question is, are the plot and the characters equally important? If there are no characters, then there is no problem to be solved, no one for the inciting incident to happen to, no antagonist to block the way. But, if there is no inciting incident, then the story goes nowhere. There is no action; there is nothing for the characters to do. So which is more important? In my opinion, the characters drive the plot; if the characters are not three-dimensional and believable enough for the reader to invest emotion in them, then the plot will be thin because no one will believe the actions of the characters. The reader needs to invest emotion in the character, be it love or hate; they need to care what happens to the character in order for your novel to keep their attention enough for them to read it through to the end. So what’s more important to you when you write, the plot or the characters?

3 responses to “Plot vs. Character: Which is the main course of your novel?

  1. The characters. You can have all the plots you want but if the characters are boring and have no situations in life then for me I will set the book down. It gets boring for me.

  2. I just read two books that a family member is trying to get published. The plot for both books are absolutely brilliant. Both books also involve lots of colorful characters that are 3 dimensional. The books are interesting because they are both plot and character driven.

    The problem she is having is over developing characters that are incidental to the story as wells as with some of the transitions. However, I see this as something that a professional editor could fix. The books have tremendous potential. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of not hiring a top notch editor and does not have the budget to hire another editor.

    Do you have any advice for this type of dilemma? I’m really encouraging her to keep at it.

    Thank you, and I appreciate your articles. They encourage me to write.


  3. I can’t read a book if the characters are not compelling.
    So as a writer, my characters have to grab me and take me for a ride. When a character is fully alive to me, he or she makes the plot burn, shocks or sets me running after. I’ve been able to outline plots but my characters tend to outgrow my plans for them. They send me back to redo my outline, time after time.

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