Plot vs. Character: Fiction Writing

fiction writing plot and character

Fiction writing: plot vs. character.

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:

  1. Tragedy
  2. Comedy
  3. Overcoming the Monster
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Quest
  6. Rags to Riches
  7. Rebirth

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:

  1. Man against man
  2. Man against nature
  3. 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.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


10 Responses to “Plot vs. Character: Fiction Writing”

  1. When you said inanimate objects can become characters, my mind immediately went to “Backdraft” – a film about firemen and the dangers they face in saving other people – because though the fire(s) had no lines, the way Ron Howard directed, and the manner in which the cinematographer captured the images, the fire became a living, breathing thing. It roared its anger and hunger from the screen and you understood every line.

    As an exercise, I’ve written two short pieces from the perspective of ‘things': A day in the life of a restaurant table, and the death of a Giant Sequoia tree.

    Great post, Melissa!

  2. Laura says:

    I think we are all original and unoriginal, but that most often, originality isn’t the point. People read stories that are interesting. There will always be a need for engaging stories that allow readers a chance to escape from their lives and/or hope that they, too, can find a creative way to solve their problems. Most people don’t care if it’s entirely original. Truthfully, originality matters only a) to win an award or become known as a Great Author and b) if your genre is so tired of the same ending that you need something new to differentiate yourself from the other. Just look at the myriad of vampire and dystopian novels selling, not to mention formulaic paperback romances that still seem to do pretty well!

  3. Terry Dassow says:

    It’s a little sad for me to think that anything that I’ll write will fall into one of only seven plot categories. One of my passions is experimental literature, so I really like to move against limitations and guidelines. Flash fiction is a form of writing which recently emerged at the hands of like-minded writers who wanted to break new ground. I wonder how writers will begin to reinvent character. It’s so exciting!

    • Indeed, it is exciting. When I first learned about the seven plots, I was actually relieved. Prior to that, I had felt like every plot idea I came up with had already been done. Now, I can identify these plots in books, movies, and TV shows. Each one (especially the good ones) are original in how they execute the plot or combine it with subplots, but I do think it’s possible to classify them all this way. There are limitations to the human experience, so it kind of makes sense that there would be limits in what we can do with storytelling. On the other hand, I agree with you that it will be exciting to see how innovative writers break the mold because that will certainly happen, eventually.

  4. I’ve always felt that plot and character are so inextricably linked that you can’t separate one from the other.

    Successful “plot-driven” stories, imho, generally have better characters than people give them credit for — it’s just that the characters are archetypes, and not anything new in themselves. But for the plot to work, the characters have to have that drive/motivation that makes a character work.

    • Most of the plot-driven stories that I’ve read have characters that I would call stereotypes rather than archetypes. However, I haven’t read them all, and I’m sure there are many plot-driven stories with wonderful, archetypal characters. Also, I have enjoyed many such stories :)

  5. MelodyJ says:

    The best kind of stories are the ones that have both strong characters and plots. You can put a new twist on plot and character types to make it your own and stand out from similar stories. I love the idea that settings and things can become characters in and of themselves. I remember when Batman Begins came out many people said that Gotham City was a character in the movie.