Character vs. Plot

It’s an argument that’s probably as old as storytelling itself: which is more important, character or plot?

More often than not, the answer boils down to personal preference. And I suppose, at the end of the day, there’s no wrong answer. You obviously need both; no story I know of has ever existed solely on the basis of character or plot (if I’m wrong, please let me know; I’d be curious to see how such a story gets told). The question then becomes… how much of each do you use? A 50-50 split? Do you go 70-30 plot? 60-40 character?

I like to think of plot as the backbone of a story, while the characters are the heart, brain, and nervous system. It’s generally true that we need a backbone in order to live, but it’s all of those other things that truly give us life. To me, the character-vs.-plot dynamic is no different.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a character guy. For me, character takes precedence over all else. If you get me emotionally invested in your characters, if you get me caring about them one way or another, then I’ll follow them — and you — pretty much everywhere. You can craft the most carefully nuanced, perfectly paced plot in the history of plotting, but if your characters are as flat and flavorful as cardboard, I’m not gonna stick around for long.

When writing, I always keep my characters in mind. Not just my protagonist or antagonist, either; this is as true for the supporting characters as anyone else. Every decision I make story-wise, I do so only with the characters in mind. How will this affect my protagonist? How will my supporting character handle this scenario? How will Character A react to Character B’s betrayal? My characters are never far from my mind, because to me, they are the pillars that hold up everything else.

Prime example: Cordelia Chase from the Buffyverse. When she moved from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel, she blossomed. In the first three seasons of Angel, Cordelia grew in so many ways, because the writers always made sure that character took precedence over plot. Whether she was dealing with the consequences of Doyle’s death or deciding to make herself half-demon to keep the visions or slowly falling in love with Angel, everything Cordelia did, every change she underwent, was always with her character in mind.

This is part of why her ascension as a higher power — which coincided with Angel being tossed into the bottom of the ocean by his own son — so controversial. Prior to that, Angel had been the perfect example of character over plot. But by that point, the plot took over, and a memorable character took a backseat to a turgid supernatural soap opera that we’re still not really sure how to take.

Think of it this way: if character is Bruce Wayne, then plot is Alfred. They’re both important, in their own ways, and while they both can exist on their own, it’s their relationship to each other that truly makes things work. And to me, the specific way in which character and plot interact is of paramount importance. Plot is important, no question, but if it starts taking over your story, it might behoove you to reexamine things.

Two last thoughts:

-Do not mistake emotional investment for liking a character; I can hate a character and still be emotionally invested in what they do and what happens to them. Distaste, hate, and disgust are just as valuable and important as fondness and empathy.

-Don’t plot your story by the philosophy of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” That’s plot over character. Instead, try asking yourself such questions as “How would my protagonist react if…?” or “What would my villain do if…?” Center your story-related questions around your characters, and you’ll find that many of your story issues will resolve themselves.

I’m sure some of you will read this and be able to craft a wonderful response arguing why plot is more important. And I welcome that; we all bring different things to the creative table, and even if I wind up disagreeing with your point, I do want to read what others have to say and get an insight into how other writers practice their craft. That’s part of the beauty of writing: there’s no one right way to do it.

But in the age-old debate, I’m solidly in the characters’ corner.

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