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Character and Plot: The Cart or the Horse?
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Two Sides of the Same Coin

When writing a story, where do we begin—with character or plot? Are they two different issues or two sides of the same coin?

The first time I heard the terms “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories, I was the editor of several mass-market novel series.  The idea of trying to separate character and plot baffled me then, and it still does. Even the most exciting plot demands a believable and sympathetic character to keep the reader engaged. And even the most many-layered, sympathetic character can’t save a story that lacks action and suspense.

If writers still need a handy maxim about plot and character, then my vote goes to the famous line of Heraclitus that “Character is destiny”. Character, in the form of motivation, is what triggers the story’s action, or plot. With each new twist, the two interact—character creating plot and plot producing new aspects of character—until the story finally resolves. In fact, this transformation is the pay-off for the reader, and it’s what distinguishes a plot from an incident. 

We can’t put the cart before the horse, but neither is the horse sufficient on its own. Deep down, each human being is driven by the same needs and desires, but few of us will go about fulfilling those desires in precisely the same way. So if we throw our main character into a pit of snakes, he will respond according to his character. Our character Olivia, for example, might immediately look for natural handholds to climb out of the pit. Jonas, on the other hand, might try to stare down and hypnotize the snakes into becoming his helpers in escape. Then again, Oscar might decide that the only way out is a fight to the death, while Petra might scream and throw rocks in the air, hoping someone will come to her aid.

In other words, each character will respond according to who he or she is. As the writer, it’s our job to know our main character well enough that we sense in our bones how he/she will react to any inner or outer dilemma. In fact, the character may become so real that he takes us by surprise. Just when we thought brash and naive Oscar would try to wrestle himself out of that dark pit, he encounters stark fear for the first time. What then? Does he become paralyzed or does he suddenly see into the nature of things? After all, we can never be truly in control. All we can really control is our reaction to what life throws at us. If Oscar does make it out alive, he will no longer be the same brash, overconfident fellow who went in.

On the other hand, we’ll soon lose our reader if the whole story consists of the main character’s internal dialogue about what to do next. After all, who cares? But the moment he or she goes into action, we’ve pulled the reader in. Sure, there might be a moment where Olivia is stunned and needs to process the fact that her life is at stake. But we can’t expect the reader to sit through much more than that before we send Olivia into action.

The same holds true in longer forms like the novel. I recall once taking part in a top-secret session to plan the next story arc of a long-running SF novel series. In searching for new twists to keep the fans interested, we began to discuss making one of our most popular and charismatic characters senile. I have never forgotten this moment because it revealed to me the folly of plotting in the abstract. Having deep-edited every novel in that series, I knew and loved those characters at least as well as the writer did. And I knew that this particular character didn’t have a senile bone in his body.

Though I can’t lay claim to the plot arc we eventually chose, I did argue that it should come from who the character was rather than from some abstract notion about surprising the readers. Knowing this marvelous character, I was sure he wouldn’t get less sharp with age. Nicknamed “The Fox” by his enemies, wouldn’t he become only more cunning and dangerous with time?

In another example, I think of a love story that one student wrote three different ways. Each time, a young man encountered an intriguing, mysterious woman from another country. In one version, the woman leaves the man and he suffers. In the second and third version, the man abandons the woman and she suffers. The third version was the best, opening with a bang, offering great dialogue that revealed the growing attraction, and with an interesting twist of the young man risking his job over the affair. Despite all this, the story really had no plot. Yes, the main character did take the action of dating the girl and he did eventually lose his job, but that isn’t a plot.

What the story lacked was character. It was never clear, for example, why the young man cooled off on the girl. This is crucial because the whole point of a plot is that the main character be transformed by the experience. In this story, the writer might have had fun showing the guy trying every possible trick (action) to untangle himself even as the girl gets more and more serious and demanding. The tone might have been poignant or humorous, or even a mixture of the two. Before the story’s end, however, the young man needed to confront, even if only in a half-understood way, his longing for love. That was the motivation (character) that set the plot (action) in motion, while his fear was the obstacle that kept him from satisfying this deep desire. Instead, he remained unchanged by the experience.

Our word “plot” is both a verb and a noun, and its origins extend back into the mists of Old English. The word started out meaning a small piece of land or ground, presumably a place where something would be built or contained. Yet, even in the sense that writers now use the word, the oldest definition of plot is still a good one. You can’t build a skyscraper on quicksand, but you might have good reasons for trying. To start, you would seek to stabilize the ground by filling it in, then perhaps come up with ingenious building techniques to suit the terrain, and, finally, even discover a striking, innovative construction whose shape suits the character of the place.

In other words, character is the ground on which your plot must stand.