Plot and character are important parts of your novel, but did you know they aren’t actually as separate from each other as you might have thought? Because the reality is, the plot doesn’t happen to your protagonist, it happens through them.
In this blog post, I will tell you a little more about how plot and character are connected to each other and you’ll learn how to write a plot that actually matters.
The myth of plot-driven vs character-driven stories
Let’s address the elephant in the room: dividing stories into plot-driven and character-driven stories is actually not useful in any way. If you google those terms, you will learn how plot-driven stories are all about stuff that happens and character-driven stories are all about the characters’ inner worlds. Is there really nothing in between and could we possibly find more accurate terms?
The problem is, you can’t write a story where only external stuff happens to your protagonist and they do nothing but react because they have no goals or opinions of their own. Or you could, but it wouldn’t be a very good story. When you look at how stories are structured, the protagonist usually reacts to a big change or problem in the first part of the story and then becomes proactive. The more events and “stuff” you have in your story, the more proactive your protagonist needs to be. A big story needs a big personality.
If you then look at what people mean by “character-driven”, these are slow, contemplative stories where nothing much happens and we only have the protagonist pondering and musing over their life, right? We can’t just read about someone sitting in a chair and thinking, though, because a story needs change. If you’ve got a passive character, you’ll need a lot of external action to have something happen, and that sounds an awful lot like “plot”.
Plot isn’t separate from everything
Your plot is not just a random series of events. Yes, you can describe plot as “a series of events that happens in your story”, but would you really tell me that none of those events depends on, say, setting or characters? I didn’t think so.
I just said that plot isn’t separate from everything, but maybe I should have said that plot isn’t separate from anything. Of course, there can be events in your story that could happen somewhere else to other people because so many of our experiences are universal. The plot as a whole still belongs to one story alone.
Just look at any book you love. Could Pride and Prejudice really happen in another place to other people and stay the same? How many of the characters in The Cruel Prince could you change while keeping the plot the same?
What’s the relationship between plot and character? Which is more important?
Which end of your shoelace is more important? Which side of the coin is more important?
I know I’m only repeating myself but it does bear repeating: separating plot and character in your story is no use. They need each other and they work together to create a story.
When you start planning a story, it very well may be that you start from a character idea or you’ve just got some exciting plot events in mind. That’s totally fine and normal. When you continue developing your story, you put your character and plot ideas together and see what kinds of chemical reactions they make happen. These plot questions to ask when writing a novel can help you fill in the gaps.
Your characters’ goals and actions make the story
When you’re still trying to figure out what actually happens in your story, you might need to take a better look at your protagonist.
Your protagonist’s goals drive the story forwards. Whenever something happens, your hero either gets closer to their goal or gets pushed further away from it. They might be doing things wrong or they might be doing things right, but in any case, they’re doing something. They make decisions. They change their minds and evaluate things. It all happens through them.
Your characters also bring meaning to whatever happens. If there’s a noise in the forest and no one hears it, it doesn’t have any meaning. But when someone hears the noise and gets frightened by it, or when someone else finds it comforting, that brings meaning to what happens. No events in your story actually mean anything without characters experiencing and interpreting them.
Your character’s strengths and flaws are what make the story what it is
Every story needs the right protagonist. Specific events and themes require specific characters. Because your plot happens through your protagonist, they inevitably have an effect on what actually happens. Their strengths and weaknesses have an effect on everything. A cowardly person will make different choices than a foolhardy person and they will have different lessons to learn. (More about lessons soon.)
You know how every story should have some kind of a big problem? The severity of a problem entirely depends on your character. I recently read I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella and it had an excellent example of an ongoing problem that is essentially ruining the protagonist’s life that is very specific to the character. Fixie Farr struggles with voicing her opinions and standing up to her domineering siblings, which is not something that I personally would struggle with, so I wouldn’t be a suitable protagonist for that specific story if I was a fictional character. (And who’s to say I’m not fictional.)
Again, think about stories you love and their heroes. If you put yourself in place of the protagonist, what would change? Or how would your two favourite novels or films change if you switched their protagonists?
Story structure explains perfectly how plot and character are connected
I know I keep going on about story structure, but I’m not going to keep any secrets when it comes to writing great stories.
For example, since we just talked about character flaws, the “dark night of the soul” portion of your plot is directly at least partially the result of your protagonist’s flaws. They’ve tried their best but they have inadvertently dug themselves an even deeper hole, and now they must lie in it.
Your story is about what your character learns
Not to be all “maybe the real plot was the lessons we learned along the way”, but your story actually is about what your protagonist learns.
Your protagonist will be doing things the wrong way. They’re going to make mistakes. If you’re not sure how to end a story, you should know it ends when your protagonist has become proactive instead of reactive and they finally learn their lesson after trying to solve their problems the wrong way. Learning the lesson ends the story because the lesson is what the story is about.
The lesson doesn’t have to be something deep and philosophical. It could be “you are worth of being loved” but it could also be “credit card debt isn’t the end of the world”. Take a look at your favourite books, movies and TV show episodes and try to find the lessons in each one of them.
Looking for an easy way to plot your story?
Learning about writing is one thing but it’s completely different to actually put all you’ve learned into action. I don’t want you to put off writing your story any longer, which is why I made the novel-writing template that helps you plot your story easily on Google Docs.
Using story structure and everything you just learned about plot and character, the template makes it easy to plan all the necessary events of an engaging story no matter what genre you write in.