Character vs. Plot. This seems to be the most difficult choice for fiction writers at times. Do you devote your time and energy to developing the characters, or the plot? Who’s in charge? Does character serve plot or does plot serve character? This is a dilemma for many, and I really don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer either way. To fully explore this issue, I think one should consider both instances:
Character Serves Plot
In this scenario, plot is alpha dog and the characters within the story exist solely to provide substance for and enhance the plot. In plot central stories, character backgrounds, motivations, and development are kept to a minimal, whilst the aspects of dilemma, climax, and resolution are fully fleshed out and defined. Action movies are probably the best examples of plot centered stories, with the titular “action” taking the foreground of focus and development while the characters themselves often remain one sided and underdeveloped.
Plot Serves Character
In this case, the tables turn: character is king and the plot exists solely to support and define the development of the character. Romances and coming of age stories are prime examples of character centered pieces, with plot devices kept to a minimal in favor of revealing subtle character change and progression. In this scenario, motivations and personalities become key, and the events of the story, while still following an understandable plot lineation, still ultimately exist to bring about change in the characters’ lives.
In a Perfect World…
Obviously, in ideal circumstances, both character and plot would rule together, with plot development and character growth both fully explored and fleshed out. This is the ultimate goal for a writer. Those who are able to successfully perform this juggling act deserve all of the accolades they rightfully deserve. Realistically however, something has to give. In the case of film for example, there exists a very narrow window of time to deliver a story effectively, and sacrifices have to be made one way or the other. Even books have to end sometime, and cuts/edits are inevitable to tighten the pace of the story.
In My Own Opinion…
At the end of the day, if it comes down to the wire and you must choose between plot and character, my first choice will always be…character. When push comes to shove, audiences want characters they can get behind, root for, empathize with. Readers want to befriend your characters, they want to know their likes, dislikes, motivations, backstories. More often than not, audiences will forgive minor lapses in plot development, but they will not respect a half-baked protagonist. Remember this: there are few things as complex or interesting as human beings.
Do everything you can to develop both your plot and your characters to the best of your abilities. But if you are running short on time, resources, or just plain creativity, invest in your characters. In your efforts to create intriguing scenarios and imaginative plot twists, don’t let the players in your drama get lost in the shuffle. Provide your readers with a guide through the world you have built. Give them a friend they’ll want to come back to and visit again and again.
Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, and founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His latest novel “Like Melvin” is currently available on Amazon and Google Books. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, hiking, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter.