On the relationship between plot and character

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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 Protagonists are the reader’s conduit into the story — without them, the story pretty much wouldn’t exist.  Often I think there are two ways writers come up with characters: either the characters come first to mind and you then figure out what story to build around them, or you come up with a story and you then figure out what character to put into it.*  

Either way, at the end of the day what you want to end up with is the right character for the right story (or the right story for the right character).  There should be a reason *this* character has to tell (or experience) *this* story.  There’s an interlocking relationship there.  If we can pull out the character from a story and replace them with someone else without affecting the story, then the relationship between plot and character isn’t strong enough.  The same is true if we place you character in an entirely different story and it doesn’t affect the character’s arc.  

Replacing the character should fundamentally change the story; replacing the story should fundamentally change the character.

For example, take two characters and two stories: Bella Swan from Twilight and Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (two female teens in a world with vampires).**  If we put Bella in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it fundamentally changes everything — not just Bella as a character, but also the story of what happens at Sunnydale High.  Suddenly, Bella has to learn pretty quickly how to hunt and kill vampires if she wants to stay alive long enough to fall in love with one.  And I’ll just leave it to your imagination what happens if we send Buffy to Forks (here’s a hint: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZwM3GvaTRM).

But even when both of those characters are in almost the exact same plot — mortal human falling in love with a vampire — they do so in very different ways.  The challenges are different, how they respond is different, how it forces them to change and grow differs.  

So if you’re someone who comes up with character first and then search for the right plot, some things to think about: what’s unique about this character — skills, feelings, quirks, desires — and what kind of plot can uniquely take advantage of those?  What does this character want more than anything else, and what are his/her largest weaknesses?  How can I force the character to face the latter in order to achieve the former?

If you’ve come up with the plot first and are searching for a character second, then think about what’s unique about the plot — what kind of unique skills, strengths, weaknesses can the plot test in someone?  What kind of person would be pushed to the breaking point (or beyond) in this kind of plot?

At the end of the day, however you get to the place of having a character and plot, you should make sure the they’re integral to each other in a way that can’t be interchangeable.   The plot should unfold because of who your character is and the actions they take (because remember, your main character should be making active decisions).  And it’s these actions and their consequences that are going to push the character to grow and change.

This is a question I come back around to at all stages of constructing a story — the initial daydream stage, drafting, revising, and all point in between: why does it have to be *this* character in *this* story?  What about this character is unique that makes this story unfold the way it does?  And what about this story unfolding has a unique affect on my character?

 *I also think they’re a hybrid of this where you have an idea of character and an idea of story and you build them both together.

** Yes, I’m mixing media here and I’m okay with that :)

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6 comments to On the relationship between plot and character

  • Interesting post! I always “meet” my characters before I know their plot (or, sometimes, their world!) I’ve been investing a lot of time in my romances, lately, focusing on how those characters’ specific traits influence their actions. Subplots galore, when it’s done well! (And your technique, of putting someone *else* in that slot, even temporarily, is a great motivator!)

  • It works for me all three ways. Sometimes I’ll get the character first, sometimes I’ll get the story first, and sometimes both pop into my head mush ready to adventure.

  • I find that my most successful projects are those in which character and plot come to me at the same time. I picture someone in a situation, and the story unfolds from there. It doesn’t always happen that way, of course, but when it does, the results are usually pretty good. Nice post, Carrie.

  • Great example with Bella and Buffy–and I just now realized that they share initials. In general, the character comes to me first and I start imagining situations for the character to see what happens. With the book I’m currently working on though, plot and character came together. Or rather, all at once the character from one place and the plot from another place suddenly demanded to be put together. So far looks like the two will be stronger together than either was when they were separate.

  • Razziecat

    With me, it’s always characters first. They are the catalyst for the plot, the reason for the story. This is a great post for me as I try to work out the setting and plot for two new characters; it’s coming, but slowly. I’m feeling my way through by writing bits of backstory for each, creating the foundation for the plot that will bring the two characters together in their own story. Thanks Carrie, there’s a lot of useful stuff in this post!

  • You know, now that I read this I don’t think I quite start with either. I usually start with an abstraction or a single image that’s in stasis. My story “God of Gods” started with that phrase – I heard it in church for the umpteenth time and suddenly heard it as “what if there were gods in the old pantheon sense? Who would they worship?” “Blondes and Other Bad Habits” started b’c I felt vaguely sorry for the smokers on my campus who literally have to stand in the gutter to smoke. Sometimes this leads to conflict and the image of a person dealing with the conflict. Sometimes it’s the other way around.