You may have the idea that you somehow have to choose between writing a plot-oriented novel and a character-oriented novel, and that one has to come at the expense of the other. I’m here to tell you why you don’t worry about these categories. It’s a completely false choice.
There’s no such thing as “character” or “plot” novels
Writers love to divide themselves into warring camps of competing ideals, and you can hear the tremendous outpouring of snootiness when this happens.
“Oh, I write character-based novels. I like my readers to actually get to know a real character instead of stuff just blowing up.”
“Oh, I write genre fiction, and I do so proudly. Stuff actually, ya know, happens in my books.”
See what these fictional people did? They separated themselves into “character” writers and “plot” writers. Annnnnd they’re both wrong. Plot and character are inseparable.
Character is revealed through the plot
Let’s first look at what makes a compelling character. Here are some examples:
- A character starts off seeming normal, but the events that follow reveal abilities and/or personality traits they never knew they had (Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Anastasia Steele, et al.).
- A character battles internal demons, which places them at odds with their surroundings (Holden Caulfield, Hamlet, Quentin Compson, Anastasia Steele, et al.).
- A relatively normal person observes a crazy world around them (Ishmael, Nick Carraway, Arthur Dent, Anastasia Steele, et al.).
There are many more, and sometimes these different character archetypes are mixed up and combined. But what do they have in common? Stuff happens to them. They do stuff. Things get complicated. And at the heart of every compelling character who has walked the pages of a novel is one thing: conflict.
Or rather, three things: conflict, more conflict, and still more conflict.
How is that most-interesting character’s personality revealed? Through the plot! What good is an interesting character if they aren’t doing anything and if interesting things aren’t happening to them?
Characters make the plot interesting and vice versa
Character is what makes the plot interesting, because we’re learning more about the character based on how they react to the events. The plot tests a character and forces them to make choices, and the plot needs a compelling character for us to care about it.
If the character isn’t a different person at the end of the story than the beginning, well, that’s not very interesting.
Plot needs character. Character needs plot. They’re two sides of the same coin. Focus on developing them both in tandem, and don’t neglect one at the expense of the other.
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Art: Italian Comedians by Antoine Watteau