Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Character and Plot: Inseparable!

As promised, today is when I'm going to talk about how character and plot are inseparable. Truthfully, yesterday was going to be the day I talked about how character and plot are inseparable, but yesterday I totally chickened out (the pressure! Don't want to sound like an idiot -- too late). My personal courage serum is an excess dosage of coffee, and let's just say I'm now personally keeping Guatemala's economy afloat.

Ok. So. Writers sometimes say they start with a compelling character and go from there. Often it's just a sketch of someone who intrigues them, and they build a world around that character. Plot? An afterthought!

But what, dare I ask (and I dare), makes for a compelling character?

Let me tell you what a compelling character is not: a compelling character is not someone who is just like everyone else, pretty much gets along with everyone, and goes about their business unaffected by whatever happens. Can you imagine? "Once upon a time there was an average girl who ate her vegetables and brushed her teeth. She grew up, paid her taxes on time, and then she died. The end."

Here's what does make for a compelling character: 1) a character who starts off seemingly normal, only ensuing events reveal abilities and/or personality traits they never knew they had (e.g. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Jeff Abbott's protagonists, et al). 2) a character battling internal demons (Holden Caulfield, Hamlet, Quentin Compson et al). 3) a relatively normal person observing a crazy world (Ishmael, Nick Carraway, Arthur Dent, et al).

There are tons more, and sometimes these archetypes are mixed up and combined. But the point is, at the heart of every compelling character who has ever walked the pages of a story is one thing: conflict. Or, rather, three things: conflict, more conflict, and still more conflict.

And how is that character's conflict revealed? Through the plot! What good is an interesting character if they aren't doing anything?

When an author says they start a story with an interesting character in mind, it's just a different side of the same coin as an author who starts with a basic plot. It's all conflict. To go back to the door metaphor from Thursday's post, the conflict at the heart of an interesting character is what is opening the door and it's why the character is trying to close the door. A character's conflict forms the basis of the plot.

The plot tests a character and forces them to make choices. It reveals the, uh, compellingness of the character. Plot is what makes the character interesting (because the character is tested) and character is what makes the plot interesting (because we're learning about the character).

And most importantly, the plot changes the character along the way. Every compelling character starts in one place and ends up in a different place, and how they get from point A and point B is the plot. (Think of Michael Corleone starting as a good guy and then ending up the don.) If the character isn't a different person at the end of the story than the beginning, well, that's not very interesting. Or compelling.

Now, some plots are better than others, and that's another post for the future. Until then, coffee growers of the world, please keep up your good work.


Kristan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristan said...

LOL. Another great post, both humorous and informative.

Hey, wanna write my book for me?! I may be able to work something out with Costa Rica...

Anne Dayton said...

I feel smarter after reading this post.

wolf said...

So do antagonists (vs. protagonists) fit into these archetypes too, do you think? Or do they follow a different set of rules? I think I've read a few books where the antagonist was more interesting than the MC.

Luc2 said...

Man, you really hit your stride here, Nathan. Your latest posts have been excellent. Stay in the zone!

pjd said...

This is a terrific articulation of what a few commenters were commenting about in the previous posts' comments.

My one quibble is that your example of an uninteresting character involved paying taxes. Maybe the IRS should look into your records because the only way you could think paying taxes doesn't involve conflict is if you've never paid them.

Seriously, "different side of the same coin" is the key here. Plot, character, conflict--they all are important ingredients. That's what I meant when I said I don't begin writing without knowing that I have a decent plot ahead of me (which may change as I go but which is at least somewhat put together). You can't have a decent plot without understanding the characters and their motivations and the conflict.

Margaret Yang said...

So...character plus conflict equals plot. Got it.

Must be the one gallon of coffee I consumed today. :-)

There has been some discussion of this over at Query Shark. Miss Shark complains about queries that are simply "a list of events, not a plot." There is a difference, although sometimes it is hard to make sure your query contains the latter, not the former.

Avrinell said...

my comment leans more toward wolfs post. Not that you can't contradict me in any way that you wish nathan :). I think that its possible for stories to have multiple plots. Not just one for the so called main character but for the villian(s) as well. They are their own characters in the story as well, whether the author wants you to love then or hate them.
They too have the ability to grow and develop in the same way that the MC or good guy does.
Take Terry goodkind (fantasy) for example. His books thrives off of villianous characters that each has there own internal struggle. Different events in the story happen that thus affect them and change who they are. The biggist being a woman by the name of Nicci (not the MC). Goodkind flawlesly injects her own story in the the book (hence a differnt plot) and she goes from being the bad guy to a good guy. The change that nathan speaks about.
I think too that its possible that one really good plot can affect both the pro and the antagonist in the same way. We all have to remember that people can both see the same thing happen but interpret it in their own way, thus effecting them differently.
And if we like one more than another...its how we as individuals interpret least we like something or someone in the book right!

JES said...

pjd: You can't have a decent plot without understanding the characters and their motivations and the conflict.

Well said.

Not to make this all, y'know, deep and elitist, but in some ways the whole plot/character discussion is Aristotelian; it requires believing -- at least temporarily -- that they're two distinct phenomena.

Interestingly (or not :), I can conceive of a book in which a character does absolutely nothing. (Nicholson Baker's early novels were kinda like that.) But I cannot think of a book with a plot but no characters. Which makes me kind of think it's all about the people first.

Hmm. Time for a poll!

Corked Wine and Cigarettes said...

Whew! Thank God all my plots are derivative. To think people out there are risking everything with untested plotlines. Preposterous!

Melanie Avila said...

Great post, Nathan. Thanks for breaking this down for us.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I usually come up with a situation first--a propelling event in some world. Then I people the event. Then I plot it. It wasn't always this way for me, but it's how I do it now via character scripts and synopses. I've learned never to start a story or book without knowing the end.

But generally, especially as a spec-fic writer, I try to rest my stories on the three-legged stool of character, plot, and setting.

Good post, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

I balked a little at your two sides of the coin analogy. I prefer Stephen King's concept that plot is the character's footprints in the snow.

I first find a character and they develop the plot. Doing it the other way around is like when you read that so and so was considered for a particular movie part. My usual response is, "But X IS that character. There's no way so and so could ever have filled those shoes."

The point being that having an exiting plot with twists, turns and surprises isn't worth much without the great actor to fill the lead role.

Give me characters and the rest will take care of itself.

Adaora A. said...

You could have made a brilliant English teacher Nathan. Seriously, you've laid it all out better then the folks I had in high school (er...three almost four years ago).

I CAN'T believe you chickened out! I figured you were swamped with the Monday morning query rush or something. Those folks that query you over the weekend and leave you drinking the 'every man' drink, and chomping spicy Thai. Chin up, the worrying was all for nothing, it was a brilliant post. I hope the Guatemala's leader's are prepared to offer you a vacation home.

Adaora A. said...

Maybe - for folks who google your name and don't read on a daily basis - you should add this to THE ESSENTIALS?

Just a thought.

Conduit said...

I'd like to just chip in with a further reading recommendation: Anyone who's interested in how the interweaving of character, plot, conflict, desire, counter-desire, protagonist, anatgonist - all that good why-didn't-I-see-that-before stuff - could do a lot worse than read STORY by Robert McKee. It's a great break down of how storytelling works. It's not about rules or restrictions, but rather mechanics. Even if you think it's all over-intellectualised bumph, it's still an enlightening and thought-provoking read.

Julie Weathers said...

I've been sitting here thinking about this and how I come up with ideas.

Suspense novel spun off the lines, "A child is born into this world with only two fears, loud noises and a fear of falling. Children of abuse quickly learn every other fear." That got me to thinking about how this child would react to things as an adult. Toss in a news story about killing horses and voila, suspense novel. It had to start with an interesting character, though.

I think all of my stories start with an intriguing person and then disaster strikes. They aren't very interesting without the disaster, so I agree with Nathan. It's very much a partnership.

Stuart, I'm going to add that book to my wish list. That's the third time I've heard about it recently, so I'm taking that as a sign.

Anonymous said...

This is my problem. My characters knock on the door, there is no answer, so they walk away.

Anonymous said...

What (help me here) is the basic problem of a teenager?
Too much energy?
so how do they solve that?
or Individuation?
and how do they solve that?

Lupina said...

Nathan, it was worth the wait. You've put it very well. This is one I'll want to print and stick in my notebook for frequent nibbling.

It sometimes is SO hard to keep making the character choose and act, rather than be chosen and acted upon, but I do believe therein lies the diff between novelular (how's that for weird coinage?) indifference or success.

Thanks, and try some chocolate with that coffee.

Heather Harper said...

I printed the last post and I'm printing this one, too.

Thank you for sharing, Nathan.

Marilynn Byerly said...

Ben Bova in his THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS says much the same thing.

The most important thing Bova explains is how character and plot interact with each other, and how character creates plot. (Plot as a characterization device.) He believes that the writer must examine her character and find his one glaring weakness and attack it through plot.

The protagonist should have a complex set of emotional problems where two opposing feelings are struggling with each other--Emotion A vs. Emotion B. (guilt vs. duty, pride vs. obedience, fear vs. responsibility, etc.)

This conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.

In STAR WARS, for example, Han Solo’s cynical selfishness wars with his unselfish love for idealistic Luke. Han’s ready to leave with his loot when the Alliance attacks the Death Star, but risks everything to save Luke. That emotional conflict is mirrored in the struggle between the two political factions as well as in the thematic two sides of the movie--the good and dark sides of the Force.

Bova’s ideas have proven useful to me, not only in creating my novels, but also as an aid when I’m stuck during a novel. When I can’t decide where I’m going or have terminal writer’s block, I reexamine my main characters’ Emotion A vs. B and realize where I’ve made a plot error so I’m able to start again in the right direction.

I go into considerably more detail about this method in my article on creating a novel with index cards.

sruble said...

Thanks for both plot posts Nathan - you rock!

Dan said...

Does Holden Caulfield really change (or do I need to go back and reread the book?)

Whirlochre said...

Primarily it's about what the characters believe about themselves and the world.

These beliefs are what they act upon (can't help themselves).

Their actions result in change, both for themselves and for their world.

So — I always start with character, and if events (the world) take a turn for the worse, what matters is how the characters react and what they do. I've tried laying masterplan plots over characters like some sort of grid, but it's never worked. The justifiably unexpected plot twists become opportunities for potential readers to cry out in despair, "No! No! He/she wouldn't do that!"

Kate Lord Brown said...

Couldn't agree more. Personally I always start with character - but crucially they are always at a dramatic point in their lives. I think it was Stephen King who said during the first draft you are telling yourself the story. The second draft is all about taking out everything that is not the story - making the plot clearer, the characters better defined.

jwhit said...

Kate, I'm with you -- being a pantser I *love* how the characters tell *me* the story. My theory is that the responses are more natural as they encounter the events. My 'fear' is that if I plan it too tightly, the effect will be stilted, unnatural, artificial.

BUT there must be characters, human or otherwise, some sensient being to feel and act, plus events that elicit those feelings and actions, either in the world or with other people in the world. Flaws help.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Fantastic, Nathan! You just proved you are a great agent... One of these days, you'll be publishing a book for writers.

The Wannabe Scribe said...

Excellent post Nathan.

I believe the character and the plot are more than inseparable. I was going to say the are almost one and the same, but that’s just not true. However they should be treated by the author as one and the same.

One character will react to the plot differently to another character, based on that character's abilities and beliefs. It's how they react that make them interesting.

If the character is quirky and nothing happens, then they have nothing to be quirky about, but give them something big to react to, and you have a whole lot of quirkiness all over your page. That makes for interesting reading.

Although, we all have our different methods, and each writer will achieve their ends via their own path, let’s not forget that our characters live in the plot – the plot is their world.

Pema said...

Thank you. I had heard this advice somewhere before, but your most helped remind me and refresh my memory on what is important in a character.

Bethany said...

Great post! I actually felt the need to post on this topic myself at my blog.

Good job, Nathan. If we ever do another interview together, I know exactly what kind of questions I'll ask you! ;)

A Blog Celebrating Arts and Entertainment

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'm one of those people who tends to come up with characters first, and while I do plot and plot and plot to figure out the character's journey and keep them from just standing there, I've been having trouble doing that with one of the upcoming stories I want to write.

And most importantly, the plot changes the character along the way. Every compelling character starts in one place and ends up in a different place, and how they get from point A and point B is the plot.
Thanks for this! This has totally just inspired me--I had a point A and point B for this character, and knew her internal conflicts, but this simple statement has just helped me figure out some of the stuff that's going to happen between the opening and closing of the door. Amazing.

nymeria87 said...

Great post and I hope you don't mind me linking to this on my own blog at

Anyway, I guess it should be pretty self-evident that character and plot are inseparable, just like you said you need some kind of conflict and some way for it to unfold. I'm thinking that most of us - myself included - who prefer the character-based approach in writing, rather unconsciously develop character and plot together without even noticing it. After all it goes hand in hand and plot is what makes a compelling character and the other way 'round.

Thanks again for another excellent definition post :D

Sam said...

Or, as Henry James put it - with uncharacteristic succinctness - 'Character is plot'.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I'm late to the party, but I came prepared with a great Henry James quote. I read all the way through the comments to make sure I wasn't being redundant, and the very last post had it! Well, it's a good quote, and I've got the actual lines, so I'll post it anyway. From "The Art of Fiction":

"What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"

It's sort of like, "You are what you eat," but for fiction, "You are are what you do."

Sam said...

Sorry, anon! I prefer your fuller version, though.


heather simmons said...


This is where I get a anxious and want to snack on little blue pills. I can answer yes to everything you brought up as far as character and plot development but getting someone to crack it open to find out is the difficult part. Granted, I've only waited one week since sending out queries but I guess it's because I keep telling myself that if the query was good enough, I would have heard it by now. This is not meant to say that I don't realize how busy agents are, because I can only imagine. It speaks more to my patience and insecurities. I guess my question is, when do I start worrying? Will I at least hear 'you suck?' (if I do?) Have you ever passed up a weak query and found out later that the book was great? (Ok, three questions)

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to say you're not a fantastic agent and you do give wonderful insight into the whole publishing process, but MAN! your posts on the craft of writing...FANTASTIC! Thanks for all your hard work Nathan.

Lavapulse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph Pedulla said...

Great post! Yes. Character is plot. You explain this very well. Thank you.

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