Plot vs. Character: Fiction Writing
Have you ever struggled with a story idea only to give up because it seems like every plot has already been done?
Maybe that’s because it has.
How Many Plots Are There?
In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker claims that there are only seven different plots in all of storytelling.
Booker’s argument sparked much discussion among writers and readers, and a great debate ensued. Was it true? Are there only seven basic plots? And if so, how could any story written after the first seven possibly be original?
You can have a lot of fun trying to categorize your favorite fiction into one of Booker’s seven plot categories:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Voyage and Return
- Rags to Riches
Booker’s concept of limited possibilities within fiction is not a new idea. Joseph Campbell dissected the major elements of narrative and produced the Monomyth (or Hero’s Journey) in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which identified the core plot elements of successful storytelling. Campbell’s ideas have been applied, tested, dissected, rearranged, and resurrected by writers, filmmakers, and literary analysts.
Do all great stories fit the Monolith pattern? Some claim there are basic elements in the Monomyth that any decent story must follow. Others says that the Monomyth is just one of many storytelling possibilities.
Another common breakdown of plot boils them all down to three:
- Man against man
- Man against nature
- Man against himself
And we wonder why it seems like everything’s been done before.
What About Characters?
If anyone’s ever claimed there are just seven characters in all of fiction, I’ve yet to hear about it. Sure, there’s the protagonist and the antagonist, and a whole bunch of stereotypical characters (the sidekick, for example), plus a bunch of character archetypes. But characters are people. They’re animals and aliens. Sometimes they’re inanimate objects. Even cities and worlds have been known to play the role of a character in a story.
And characters, like people, are infinite in their possibilities. Plus, readers connect on an emotional level with characters. A plot may be interesting, even fascinating, but it’s the characters that make us feel attached to a story.
When you think about your favorite books, what do you recall? Is the plot unforgettable, or do the characters make a story memorable?
One of my favorite novels of all time is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I’ve read it twice, and if you ask me what it’s about, I won’t be able to tell you much in terms of what happens in the book. What I will tell you is that the main character, Holden Caulfield, is so vivid that both times I finished reading it, I kept expecting young Mr. Caulfield to come walking through the door. He was that real – in my mind, he actually lived off the page!
What’s More Important – Plot-driven Stories or Character Fiction?
There are readers who insist that they need a gripping plot to keep them interested. Others say that the best stories are built around characters. And writers are split on the issue too. Some work from a plot outline while others work at character development and then let the characters move the action forward.
I get a lot of my creative writing tips by listening to author interviews, and one of the most common questions that interviewers ask novelists is about their writing process. Did they start with an outline? Was there an entire plot planned out ahead of time?
Interestingly, most authors respond with something like: “I let the characters tell the story. If I planned the plot ahead of time, I’d know what’s going to happen, and that would take all the fun out of writing it.”
Let Your Characters Take the Wheel
We’re compelled by fiction because there is something in it that resonates as truth. Though many wonderful stories are plot-driven, we are often drawn to a particular tale because we feel a connection with the characters. We understand them, sympathize with them, and relate to them.
We see ourselves in them.
Of course, the best stories make good use of both plot and characters. However, once the plot wraps up, readers and writers are still left with characters. Sometimes they go on to other adventures (in trilogies and other series). Other times, we can only imagine what became of them after the story ended.
Whether plot or characters drive your own fiction writing is totally subjective. Each writer must find a style for story development that feels comfortable and produces desired results. But if you haven’t given character-driven fiction a try, then make an effort to attempt it, even if just once. You might surprise yourself, and you might have a lot of fun discovering the antics your characters will get into when you let them drive the story.