Monday 4 March 2013

Character vs Plot

I've been neglecting the blog again! Bad Claudia!
Don't worry though, I've been busy on the concluding part of His Darkest Desire, and if all goes well it should be ready to publish in a few short days.

Anyway, just now I bumped into a thread on Kindleboards about character vs plot, and I thought it might make a great jumping off point for a blog post!

At first glance it might seem as though character and plot are two equal partners in the process of storytelling. Certainly, it's pretty gosh-dang impossible to have any semblance of one without the other when you're writing fiction, but I'm a firm believer in one of these elements vastly overshadowing the other in its importance. Can you guess which?

When I was a student, I vividly remember one particular lecture on creative writing where our tutor turned to the class and asked us: "What's the most important part of a story?"
She got a bunch of vague and nondescript answers (I think my own was something like "a gripping story", duh), but nobody gave her the one she was looking for. It was, of course, character. Characters are the foundation upon which any good story is built, and understanding why involves looking carefully at the fundamental reasons behind why we read fiction in the first place. Certain genres all have their different niches, but a big part of what motivates us as human beings (not just to read, but to pursue any activity in life) is to experience emotion. The best stories are always the ones that make us laugh out loud, or break down crying, or punch the air in triumph, or that follow us around for days haunting our thoughts.

The vehicle for all of those emotions is character. Characters allow us to get sucked into the story. They provide a relatable reference point from which we can vicariously experience the events of a story through human eyes. It's almost impossible to tell a story without there being some kind of character there for the reader to latch on to. Even if I wrote a simple sentence like:
The pebble rolled down the hill.
I'm willing to bet most people after reading that would be thinking of the pebble as the focal point of the story. It's rolling down a hill, going on a journey. Where will it end up? What started it rolling?
Even a pebble can become its own character when we need a point of reference from which to ground our understanding of a story.

The most important thing I took away from those classes in university was this: A good story does not need to have a good plot if it has strong characters. 
Even if the events happening around those characters lack consistency or structure -- even if they're just a jumbled mix of "things happening" with little rhyme or reason -- we can still experience the emotional engagement of putting ourself in the characters' shoes and following them through their personal arcs. It's caring about characters that makes us keep turning the pages over and over again.

A good example I can think of would be Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. I can't for the life of me remember what the plot of that book was about -- or if there even was much of a plot. There are small subplots, and a general theme of "Louis travels the world trying to find out more about vampires", but there's no intricately woven narrative unfolding across the book as a whole. The novel is very much focused on Louis as a character, and how he adapts, changes, and copes with his existence as an undead creature of the night. Everything else that happens is just a vehicle to stimulate Louis's development. When a character has such a strong and emotionally complex arc that they become a microcosm of a plot in themselves, it really doesn't matter all that much what is going on in the world around them.

But of course, that isn't to say that plot is something you can just toss by the wayside if you have strong characters. Even though a story can survive on characters alone, it will always be better if the plot is up to standard as well. Whodunnit mysteries can keep you up late at night with a devilishly gripping plot -- but the important thing to remember is that they wouldn't be nearly as compelling if the characters hadn't made you care about whodiddit in the first place.

I like to summarise it by saying that plot is what makes a story interesting, but character is what makes it engaging. History books and news reports are interesting, but stories with heroes, villains, emotional depth and heart-wrenching conflict are the ones that will stay with you forever. We need characters for that kind of engagement, and they should always be the building blocks for any story.

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