The False Dichotomy of Plot vs. Character

The False Dichotomy of Plot vs. Character

How often have you heard writers say “characters are the most important part of a story”? If you’re like me, the answer is often—and if you’re like me, you’d have had unidentifiable qualms with that piece of advice for quite some time. Perhaps it’s that I’ve long identified with being a plot-first writer, and it seems a bit unfair to focus so much on characters (and needlessly lament how hard plots are). But it’s only recently that I’ve determined what really bothers me about comments like that one: characters and plot do not exist separately from each other in actual stories. Yes, you can separate them during the brainstorming process, and there are benefits to that, especially in the case of a specific problem with one or the other. But in practice it’s harmful to view them as separate entities on opposite sides of a sliding scale, rather than two parts of the mechanics that make a story run.

The best analogy I can give is nouns and verbs. When I took an advanced grammar course last year, the first half of the class was dedicated to diagramming sentences. I, for one, loved diagramming, but beyond the enjoyment, it helped me truly understand how the parts of speech work together in a sentence. One of the fundamentals of diagramming is the main line, which always consists of the subject (noun) and the verb. The two are divided by a vertical line, but they are always partnered together at the core of a sentence’s meaning—everything else (adjectives, adverbs, prepositions) jut off from them.

Now, are they distinct from each other? Yes. Do they serve different purposes? Yes. Should you study them individually in order to better understand grammar? Yes. But when you actually write a sentence—when you actually want to communicate clearly and meaningfully—the two always go together. If you don’t have one, the other is virtually pointless. This is a mutual dependency, too—a lone noun is of as much usefulness as a lone verb.

Going back to plots and characters, they are always connected to one another when you tell a story, even if you think you are horrible at one or the other or that one of them is really weak. The basic definition of a plot is the sequence of events that happen in a given period of time. You can’t have events happening unless someone or something takes action, right? So innately, you can’t have plot without characters. On the other hand, the basic definition of a character is a being (whether human, animal, or otherwise)—and right there is a verb! That state of being alive is a verb and thus, means that they are creating a plot for themselves even if they are simply existing. A story that consists of internal thought processes or a bunch of dialogue snippets still has a plot; a story that focuses mainly upon action or impersonal events still has characters who are doing the action.

Do you see why I’ve come to dislike using “plot vs. character” as a way to describe stories or storytellers? It’s dishonest to how stories work; it pits two wonderful story aspects against each other for no beneficial reason; it makes writers who are better at one or the other feel as if they have to struggle with the “opposing” element. Not to mention that it leaves very little room for themes (have you ever heard someone say they’re a “theme-first writer”?), which are also an intrinsic part of storytelling, even if you don’t intend it! You cannot create a character or a plot that doesn’t carry some state or unstated meaning about greater, abstract concepts, and though you can purposefully try to either add them or avoid them, those actions also create their own themes, woven into the characters and plot and storyworld that you pen. The fact that these elements can be dissected separately but always find a way to work in harmony once actual writing begins is, to me, one of the beautiful mystery of storytelling.

Because I’ve come to dislike the use of “plot vs. character,” I’ve come up with a new way of framing the question that, perhaps, gets closer to the heart of what really makes writers differ in how they craft stories. I propose using the terms “macro-first writer” or “micro-first writer.” Macro-first writers are those who, like me, tend to begin crafting stories from larger concepts: worldbuilding, abstract/broad themes, plots or events, genre, etc. Micro-first writers are those who tend to begin crafting stories from smaller concepts: characters’ inner worlds, relationships, specific locations or tropes, etc. Admittedly, these terms probably don’t cover every author out there, but that’s okay! There will always be people who are more balanced in their approach (indeed, I feel like I’ve grown more balanced the longer I’ve written). But I think these terms a) allow for more variety, since it’s not two items pitted against each other, and b) imply that stories will grow to encompass the elements of the “opposite” approach either by expanding into something larger or whittling down into something smaller. We might begin with a certain concept, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grow the story seed into a fully-fledged tale.

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