Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Which Comes First: Character or Plot?

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Which Comes First: Character or Plot?

Both! Neither!

Let’s see what the author of the post says …

If you have read your share of books on the craft of writing, you will be familiar with the assumption that writers of genre fiction are plot people, while writers of literary fiction are character creators. Graduate students are often dismissive when it comes to plot.

Here’s what I tell them: Whether you are writing horror or haute literary, your novella or novel needs both an engaging protagonist and a compelling plot.

Yep, I’ve seen that assumption, rolled my eyes, and moved on. Personally, I do think engaging characters are more important than an exciting plot. Or maybe I should say, a compelling plot can be astoundingly low key. I’m thinking here of The Hands of the Emperor. I can hardly imagine anyone would argue that this book is plot-forward. It’s so much a character story that it barely has a plot. Or at least, I think I might argue that the plot is essentially part of the development of the characters. If the characters didn’t develop in those ways, the plot wouldn’t happen at all.

Let’s see where this post goes …

I’ve been hedging on which comes first, plot or character. Honestly, you can’t divorce one from the other. … Put another way, it is not so much what happens to us as it is how we react to what happens to us. And because life gets complicated fast, so does fiction. Even in the most mundane situations, we have choices, lots of them, and how we react affects our destinies, sometimes by inches and other times by miles.

I like this post! Who wrote it? Ah, this is an adapted excerpt from  Writing the Novella by Sharon Oard Warner. Well, I like what she’s saying here.

This reminds me of a different question and answer:

Is it nature or nurture that causes xxxxxx?

That’s like asking whether it’s the oxygen or the hydrogen that makes water wet.

Is it character or plot that makes a story engaging?

That’s unanswerable in the same way. What happens is part of the plot, but how the character responds to events is part of the character. It’s like asking whether it’s the oxygen or the hydrogen that makes water wet.

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5 Comments Which Comes First: Character or Plot?

  1. Mary Catelli

    Fortunately, as James put it, “Character is plot.”

    If you switched Hamlet at birth with Macbeth — well, Hamlet would have deduced that the witches knew what they were up and waited to find out how he would be king, and Macbeth would have lopped of Claudius’s head within moments of meeting the ghost.

    To get an actual story, you would have to have Banquo spilling the beans about Hamlet, leading to a conflict that might make Hamlet king, and having Claudius know what his nephew was like, and so getting guards, that Macbeth might get past by — oh, feigning insanity until they think he’s harmless.

  2. Elaine T

    This reminds me of the discussion in the post about Character Development here. What matters isn’t the background – tea they like, friends they had, etc., it’s what they DO. Those background elements have to somehow feed into that character to aid in their Doing so there is plot. Preferably without whatever is done being narratively required. Except insofar as the story is going a certain way. Thinking of the Han Solo example again. THere were other ways to distract Vader so Luke could make the shot. Han’s presence wasn’t required on the narrative level, which is why it’s such a good example of a character defining moment. IF there must be a ‘moment’ rather than slow reveal or build.

    I also like that version of Hamlet.

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