Death Match: Plot Versus Character

Highlander (franchise)

There can only be one. Or can there?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, back in the long ago, I wrote my first full-length novel.

When I finished the first draft, I was pretty proud of myself. I had finished a novel. About 95,000 words. Holy shit, right?

But…the more I looked at it, the more I knew: there was something wrong. I don’t know how I knew. I just did. It’s like painting a portrait of someone: you know if you got it right because it looks right. Likewise, you know if you got it wrong because it just is wrong. It might be subtle—eyes not quite the right colour—or it might be obvious—third ear, anyone?—but when it’s wrong, you know.

So this was wrong, and I knew it. And, after getting a couple of people to read it for me*, the cause was obvious: the plot was weak. The pacing was off, the plot hung together on coincidence, and just generally didn’t work.

I was depressed for a while.

But then I got over it and stopped acting like a precious little snowflake so I could get back to work. Novel number two, step up to the plate. I spent a couple of years, a few more novels, and a bunch of short stories working on plots and pacing and all kinds of things like that, generally improving that part of my game. And turned a out a few stories that were pretty good. But there was still something lacking.

Eventually, I figured it out: I’d gone too much into plot. I’d developed that at the expense of character. Rookie mistake. You hate to see it.

I had managed to embody a debate you’ve probably heard a lot about: plot-driven fiction versus character-driven fiction. Which one moves your story, and hopefully your readers? Which one is stronger, because there can only be one.

And, after a couple of years, I had the answer: the argument itself was bullshit. A good plot is nothing without good characters. Without compelling people capable of acting on their world, it gets boring real fast. You might as well be watching one of those creepy fucking animatronic shows. But, likewise, great characters with a lame-ass plot suck, too. You can force them to go along with it, sure, but if the decisions have been made for them instead of by them, it won’t work. It’s like watching people try to act in porn: they’ll say the lines, but you know they’re thinking of something else. Or they get bored and start wandering off to do other things. So character and plot need to work together. By our powers combine and all that.

I think the debate should be about combination. Your plots should spring organically from the characters that act in them, and your characters should be shaped by the events. You can’t develop either in a vacuum. I feel like now I’ve found a balance that works for me and for the stories, but it was a long time coming. And next year I might think something different. Hell, next week I might think something different. But for now, this is working.

*I’d like to thank those people right now. And apologize. God, what a piece of crap that was.