The importance of characters vs. plot

characterisationIn the past, I’ve written about marrying plot and characters, and how to improve you characters. I haven’t really written in-depth about the importance of characters versus plot. Let’s remedy that.

Characters versus plot

Characters are the people who matter in your story. The plot is what drives them to act. The important thing, which I’ve stresses before, is that plot is not just ‘what happens’. Plot is about change. Something has to change for the characters. You can write a story about somebody sitting in her living room, sipping tea, and reading the paper. Things have happened, but nothing has changed. It’s boring. If she’s reading her paper and a truck drives through her living room wall, then something has changed, and it’s suddenly more interesting.

Every scene in a story should bring change to the character in the eyes of the reader. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. Note that enlightening a character’s motivation or goals by — for example — a flashback, is also change. It doesn’t change the character, but it does change them in the eyes of the reader.

Having said that, you might conclude that the characters themselves are less important than the plot, but the opposite is true.

No characters, no plot

Plot is what changes, and it’s what differentiates a story from a painting. Things change in stories, while they are fixed in a painting. However, the characters are what makes you care about the story.

Have you seen the Breakfast Club? It’s a movie about a couple of teenagers from vastly different backgrounds stuck in detention. Over the course of the movie, they grow closer together. It’s basically just a group of teenagers talking, but the way the characters are portrayed carries the movie.

The best way to break a story for me, is by fudging the characters. Plotholes I can more easily forgive than characters acting out of character. The more I read, the more I think characters make a story and plot doesn’t.

Characters make the plot

You can go one step further and argue that the plot follows from who the characters are. To a reader it has to feel as if there is no plot. The characters are put into situations and their logical responses drive the story forward. Looking at it like that, there is no plot at all. There’s just the characters acting the way they act.

This is actually how I approach writing a D&D campaign. I define some antagonists, throw a problem at the players and just see what follows logically. At some point that results in a final showdown and voila: campaign done.

M Harold Page wrote an article on Charles Stross’s blog with a similar premise: plot is character.

Conclusion

Over the past year, I’ve been looking critically at my writing from the characterization perspective. My background is in computer science, and I’ve found my strength is in plotting, not characterization. And lo and behold, it turns out that plotting is the least important of the two, perhaps doesn’t even exist. Guess I stay have things to learn.

And for you, the next time you see a movie that’s terrible, or read a book filled with boring twists, think about this blog. Think about the characters in the movie or book. There’s a good chance that they are the ones who are being portrayed terribly, or you don’t care about them.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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