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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8 thoughts on “Which Comes First: Character or Plot?”

  1. 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. 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.

  3. I like plot and character, but I’m biased a little towards plot. You can have a detective story with a compelling mystery and plot and cardboard characters and I’m still going to eat it up (Murder on the Orient Express). But the most common reason I don’t like a book is that it had compelling characters with nothing to do.

    I’ve seen character-weak books become favorites with a great plot. I’ve never seen a plot-weak book win me over via character.

    While I have a lot of problems with Story by McGee, the section on why he believes plot = character has always stuck with me. His argument is that true character is revealed by the actions and decisions a character makes (plot). Something like “She was tall with blue-green eyes and shoulder-length brown hair,” to McGee, is characterization, which he doesn’t’ count as character. But he says it’s a mistake to mix them up.

    If you say that a character “smart and honest,” the reader assumes you’re lying. Those things are character, not characterization. Instead, if you show that character in a situation that’s very difficult and they come up with a clever way to save the day, then the reader will see them as smart. And if they choose to be honest in a situation that harms themselves or the ones they love, then that shows the honesty.

    I’m not entirely on board with how far he takes his argument. I think plot and character are separate things, and I think “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” is a useful distinction to have. But his argument makes sense, and sometimes I can see myself trying to portray character through description instead of action during edits and I know how to fix it now.

  4. Well, I agree that character is revealed through actions. I think the part I disagree about is that every action is part of the plot. Suppose the story is set in a high school. If the protagonist takes one minute to verbally defend a bullied kid against the bully, then that may be one hundred percent irrelevant to the plot, which could perfectly well involve saving the world or whatever. But that moment still reveals character.

    One of the things I like least, though, is when other characters — not the author as omniscient narrator — think of a character as smart, when she (it’s always a female character) is actually revealed through her actions as a complete idiot. Usually a very impulsive idiot. I’m not sure how McGee would think about that. I think of it as a deep failure of characterization on the part of the author, no matter what’s going on with the plot.

  5. omething like “She was tall with blue-green eyes and shoulder-length brown hair,” to McGee, is characterization, which he doesn’t’ count as character.
    Wait, what? That’s plain description, not characterization. Characterization would be if she chose to wear a wig that color, and colored contacts to give her eyes the color she wanted. That is telling us stuff about the character.

    Agreed, on the supposedly smart character revealed as an idiot by the actions taken. And there’s the occasional dedication that I take as a warn off “thanks to so-and-so who helped make Character smart enough”. Hasn’t yet actually worked for me as making the character intelligent.

    I haven’t seen it done, but I suppose an ambitious writer could attempt to make that a plot point, and the high opinion of others due to .. oh, mind control, or something. A bit like what DWJ did with Grandma in The Pinhoe Egg .

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