Character -v- Plot by Allison Symes
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In the character -v- plot debate, I’m on the side of the characters. Characters trigger plots. If I’m writing a pompous character, I’m almost always going to put them in a humorous tale and set them up for a well-deserved fall. Laughing is the best thing to do with pomposity.
A great plot can be let down if it is served by “weak” characters. Conversely, a strong character can “lift” a weak plot. (Naturally you aim for a great character and a terrific plot but I’ve found knowing my characters well enough to write their stories is the logical starting point for me).
An intriguing character keeps me reading. I struggled with Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Fanny Price is easily her worst heroine - far too insipid. Had this been by any other author, I wouldn’t have finished reading it.
I must care about the characters to want to read their stories. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice is the kind of character I love to read about and emulate. She knows her own mind, is witty, is prepared to defy convention, and holds her ground when it matters.
I have to feel the author cares enough about their characters to justify sharing their stories. That comes through in a well-rounded character with flaws and virtues to make us want to follow their journey through to those magic words The End.
What I love about series novels is when the author has got a cracking character who can “hold” several stories. Favourites of mine include Sam Vimes and Moist Von Lipwig from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. The portrayal of Vimes in particular is a master class in character creation as you read “his” books through. The development of this character’s life from a drunk deadbeat to a hero is brilliantly done.
A well-portrayed character will also show us something about ourselves. Maybe that is one reason we need fiction. It can get across hard truths in a more palatable form but you need the characters to show you those truths.
When I read for pleasure I look for what it is Iove or loathe about the characters because I can learn from that for my flash fiction and short stories. Let’s say I’m not planning on writing any character as insipid as Fanny Price. I want my characters, whether they’re male, female, human or not, to “earn” their places in my stories.
If someone tells me Book X has a terrific plot, I’m not impressed. If I’m told Book X has wonderful characters who make you want to cry, scream, or what have you, then I am. Characters should make you feel something. There is no such thing as passive reading. I have got to be engaged with the characters. The challenge for me as I invent my people is to try to have that impact on potential readers.
So where are you on the character -v- plot debate and why?
I also agree about characters driving the plot forward. I find this particularly with series characters.
As for plot v character - well, you need both of course. I'm afraid I don't care how terrific a character is if the plot simply doesn't work, or works but is very dull, or is full of holes, or if the 'twist' is so obvious you can see it coming a mile off. Quite a lot of modern literary fiction is like this, including several prize winning works. It makes for extremely annoying reading.