One of the most complex arguments in fiction today is whether plot or character is more important. Some writers believe that plot drives a story, and makes the difference between a good novel and a bad one. Other writers are adamant that the characters in a story are what make or break a novel. Understanding this argument, which isn’t going away anytime soon, can help shed light on what it takes to be an effective writer. So let’s take a closer look at the importance of plot and character when it comes to contemporary fiction.
The Origins of the Plot Versus Character Argument
You can divide the writers of the world into two distinct categories: those that focus on plot, and those who write about characters. Some writers can craft amazing worlds that we daydream about for hours, if not days. Other writers are more adept at bringing to life riveting scenarios that get our pulse pounding, or pique our interest.
All good fiction has to find a happy medium, and balance effective characters and an interesting plot. But the fact is, most writers favor one element of fiction over the other. Let’s look at a few examples in popular fiction.
Plot vs Character in Contemporary Fiction
There are many examples of this conflict playing out in novels and screenplays. The hit film Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, had tremendous characters that, despite the fact they are from another part of the universe, were easy to relate to; you wanted to fly around the galaxy with them, right? However, the entire plot of that movie was utterly forgettable. And the audience could care less, they loved the movie.
Contrast that with the technothriller Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole. The novel imagines a limited war between the United States and China in the near future, focusing on the use of emerging technologies, like autonomous drones, in combat. The novel is a riveting page-turner with a realistic plot and intriguing premise; however, the ensemble cast of characters are almost completely forgettable;, no protagonist or antagonist stands out. Still, audiences loved the book.
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An Argument for Plot
Many writers argue that what happens in a book in a novel, and why, are the critical parts of the story. They favor great plots over a focus on characters. This is particularly true when it comes to thrillers. Dan Brown’s characters in The DaVinci Code and other novels are generic and largely forgettable. However, the premises he establishes and plays out in his novels have captivated audiences around the world.
Plot driven stories, the argument goes, are more compelling; readers keep turning the pages to see how the characters will deal with the complex situations they find themselves in. Plot-centric advocates also note that most approaches to writing are based upon it; after all, tools like pinch and plot points are used to help develop a riveting plot in which the characters will act, right?
The Case for Character
If the audience doesn’t appreciate your story’s characters, another argument goes, then you aren’t writing effective fiction. Writers, especially those writing literary fiction, insist that the characters’ reaction to the world around them, and the changes they go through from the beginning of the novel to the end, are the most critical parts of the story. To proponents of character, a good plot cannot fix bad characters.
Writing memorable characters is the critical component of effective storytelling to many writers. To these writers, the plot of a novel like The Goldfinch is secondary to the riveting characterization of the protagonist in the novel, and his growth through the course of the story.
So which side wins out, plot or character?
A Plea for Plot-Character Equity
At the end of the day, the plot/character argument will always end in stalemate. There are equal numbers of successful writers who play to their own particular strengths, write character or plot-driven novels, and achieve tremendous success. In most cases, focusing on the importance of one of these aspects of fiction over the other can be a distraction.
Instead of arguing about plot or character, writers should ask themselves two questions: did I accomplish my intent with this novel; and does this novel connect with readers? If the answers to both of these questions is yes, then you know you’ve succeeded with your novel; if not, it is time to get back to work.
The plot versus character divide has endured for a long time, and shows no sign of abating. However, you shouldn’t let this or any other argument distract you from improving your writing. The tendency of writers to favor one of these aspects over the other makes it critical to ensure your work is balanced. And growing as a storyteller means that you must strive to become adept at developing good plots as well as compelling characters. So keep on writing!