Plot versus character. Two heavyweight wrestlers stepping into the ring. The question on many writers' lips is: who will win?
It’s a common conundrum, with many writers wondering where they should place their focus as they start out with their first stories.
We can all think of examples where the plot led the way or where character development was at the forefront, but is one more important than the other?
Do literary agents prefer plot over character or vice versa? Perhaps more importantly, do readers prefer one over the other?
The answers to these questions are a little more nuanced than we might expect.
Which is More Important: Plot or Character?
To keep the answer short and sweet, the truth is that when it comes to fiction, both plot and character are important. The relationship between the two is incredibly symbiotic.
You can have a powerful idea for a plot (the imminent destruction of our planet as an alien asteroid hurtles towards it, for example), but if you have no compelling characters reacting to or engaging with the event, it’ll be pretty bland to read.
Likewise, to develop a character and show your reader who they are, how they feel, and what motivates them, you need to have a plot: things happening to and around them that allow you to turn them into someone the reader should care (or not care) about.
Both elements are required for any story to reach its full potential. Despite this, there’s still an ongoing debate around the literary scene as to which is better: plot-driven narratives or character-driven narratives?
You’ll find that many authors tend to lean towards one or the other. There are some great examples of how both can be done effectively to create engaging stories that readers love.
The Case For Plot-Driven Narratives
First things first: what do we mean by plot-driven narratives?
In a plot-driven story, the author places a larger emphasis on the things happening to the characters. These books tend to focus on factors like plot twists, action and activity, as well as external conflict.
We don't get as much of an in-depth look into how the characters feel, or a deeper analysis of their motivations for behaving in specific ways.
A simple way to determine whether a story is plot-driven is to see whether you can interchange a character or two. If you swap characters around, does the plot itself stay relatively the same? Does it progress in the same way?
If so, you’ve got a plot-driven narrative on your hands.
What Genres Suit Plot-Driven Narratives?
Essentially, any book where the things that happen to the characters are focused on more strongly than the characters themselves.
- The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Although Frodo is a strong protagonist, the plot centres more on the larger action. You could potentially swap Frodo for another hobbit, or even remove Frodo from the trilogy entirely, and still have the same plot surging forward.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Similar to Frodo, Katniss is a great character, but we only know her through her reactions to the events occurring around her. We could have followed her sister (originally selected as ‘tribute’) or any of the other children and still been led down a similar revolutionary plot.
- The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child
This series of action/thriller novels revolves around a central character, ex-military policeman Jack Reacher, but does not focus primarily on Reacher as a character. Instead, the fast-paced action and intrigue is each book's driving force, and Reacher could ostensibly be replaced by any other ex-military figure without affecting the overall plot.
5 Tips for Writing Plot-Driven Narratives
- Focus on external conflict, activity and action.
- Build a ‘rollercoaster’: outline the highs and lows of the plot, but stay on track.
- Include a good plot twist (or two).
- Explore character development, but remember it is secondary to the plot action.
- Create a sense of urgency: readers should be dying to find out what happens next.
The Case For Character-Driven Narratives
As you’ve probably guessed, in a character-driven narrative, the roles of plot and character are reversed. In character-driven narratives, the author will focus on developing their character (or characters) on a deeper level.
These stories tend to examine personal and inner transformations, the development of relationships and how these change characters, and internal and interpersonal conflicts.
When we read character-driven novels, we find ourselves feeling more emotionally connected to a specific character because we’re given the opportunity to build a relationship with them.
We get to know the characters, flaws and all, in so doing we can empathise with their journeys, often discovering parts of our own journeys in them.
Plot still exists in these stories, but it plays a more low-key role. It's usually used to encourage characters to reflect, or to reveal deeper insights into why a character reacts or behaves in specific ways.
What Genres Suit Character-Driven Narratives?
Literary fiction lends itself well to character-driven narratives. Due to the simpler nature of the plot, short stories also tend to be more character-driven.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
A popular example of a character-driven narrative, we follow the title character Jane from early girlhood through to her emergence into womanhood, exploring all the challenges that await her. Brontë takes us into Jane’s inner world, and her experiences, feelings and reactions are central to the book.
- The Idiot by Elif Batuman
The Idiot might possibly be considered a modern-day Jane Eyre. It follows the journey of Selin in her penultimate year of university, as she learns that real life rarely matches up to literary fiction. Batuman explores Selin’s world with microscopic detail, and we’re given insights into the full spectrum of her emotional reactions as a failed romance unfolds before her.
- The Outline Trilogy by Rachel Cusk
Heralded as a triumph of literary fiction, it’s impossible to answer the question ‘What happens?’ when describing Cusk’s trilogy. We follow the steps of English writer, Faye, as she interacts, converses with and learns from acquaintances and strangers alike. It's thin on plot, but thick on character development.
5 Tips for Writing Character-Driven Narratives
- Focus on inner conflict, interpersonal relationships, and character transformations.
- Develop a strong character arc – readers need to see how the character grows.
- Explore a detailed backstory that aids understanding of the character.
- Character development is primary to the plot action, so rather than focusing on what happens, focus on how characters feel about and react to it.
- Create an emotional connection to allow readers to build a relationship with the character.
What About Stories That Focus on Both?
We'd be remiss to detail examples of plot and character narratives without also taking a look at some examples that blend both.
Books that find a strong balance between both plot and character tend to focus on a small group of characters and the events that happen to them over a course of time.
These tend to be longer novels or series, allowing the author room to explore the plot and develop characters simultaneously.
- Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
The Harry Potter series is intensely plot-focused, but also includes an incredibly strong protagonist and important, in-depth backstory. You can’t remove Harry from the series without some serious plot holes, but Rowling also weaves in detailed emotional development of the core group of characters (and a few plot twists for good measure).
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Superbly blending plot and character, the protagonist in Eugenides' story, Cal Stephanides, would not develop without the long backstory that details his family and genetic makeup. We jump between timelines as Cal tells his transformation story, with Eugenides dropping in heaps of action to move us along.
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Similarly to Middlesex, Pachinko spans several decades to follow the lives, challenges, and tragedies of not just one Korean family, but entire countries. While Sunja could be seen as the main character, we also get emotional glimpses into those around her and come to be deeply connected to those Sunja loves. Lee blends history with fiction in this epic that is a great example of a novel that balances plot and character with aplomb.
There really is no wrong or right answer about whether you should focus on plot or character, or place equal importance on both.
Different types of stories need to be told in different ways, and there are exciting examples that demonstrate how both publishers and readers love books that cover all three structures.
What’s more important is to focus on the type of story you want to tell. As a writer, it’s crucial to understand which path you’re taking your story down.
Great writers have a knack for finding the balance between their plot and their characters, regardless of whether they lean towards one more than the other.