Character -v- Plot by Allison Symes

Image Credit:  Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.

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?



Ruth Leigh said…
Poor old Fanny! She's a bit dull, that's true. But there is that rather naughty joke about the Rear Admiral that Austen gives Mary Crawford which almost makes up for her. Great blog! I am all for strong characters who drive the plot and I 100% agree about Wodehouse.
Allison Symes said…
Many thanks, Ruth. Am sure JA would have renamed Miss Price had she any inkling about how language and names can take on alternative meanings!
I agree about Fanny Price - I've never seen a good adaptation of the book either. I think maybe the character is just completely out of step with what women aspire to these days in a way that other Jane Austen heroines aren't.
I also agree about characters driving the plot forward. I find this particularly with series characters.
Allison Symes said…
Thanks, Cecilia. She is so boring especially when compared with Elizabeth or Anne for that matter. I want my heroines to DO something!
Peter Leyland said…
Yes, poor Fanny Price, but as a foil for Mary she is brilliant. I do remember one good film adaptation in 2000 and Harold Pinter had some connection. Mary was endearingly wicked. Interestingly enough, I have just finished reading My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier and what a masterpiece of both plot and character. I'm still wondering about the ending...
Allison Symes said…
Thanks, Peter. I wonder if JA meant us to feel more sympathy for Mary than Fanny.
Umberto Tosi said…
So true. Once I care about a novel's main characters, I'm unlikely to put it down, and likely to look for a sequel when I'm done!
Allison Symes said…
Many thanks, Umberto. It is the characters I want to find out about. I have to care about what happens to them to make me read.
Griselda Heppel said…
I feel compelled to ride to the rescue of Fanny Price! I think what JA does with her is fascinating: the challenge of creating somebody in a totally powerless position, whose strength comes from her instinctive sense of honesty and integrity combined with warmth. All the other characters try their damndest to make her do something she knows to be wrong, using the cruellest manipulations verging on emotional bullying, and she stands her ground. That takes enormous strength of character and a heroine who commands that is one for all time, and never more so than in today's cancel culture. If she was insipid she'd just go along with it all. As a wholly dependent poor relation, that's what the family expects, and they are clearly outraged when she doesn't. Go Fanny!

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.

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