Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wordcraft -- The action dilemma II: character vs. plot

Which comes first in fiction – the character or the plot?  In one of her creative writing classes at Southern Methodist University, mystery/fantasy author Suzanne Frank said that SMU’s creative writing program originally placed more emphasis on plot development than character development only to find that the resulting protagonists weren’t strong enough to carry novel-length stories.  As a result, the program now emphasizes character development strongly, and I will share some of its techniques in more detail in the future.  For now, I hope knowing what our protagonists must accomplish will help to develop characters sturdy enough to undergo the tests of the plot and flawed enough to need them.

Speaking at this spring’s DFW Writers Conference, agent Weronika Janczuk urged proactivity as a necessary character element.  This means the character must take charge of the events of her life instead of simply reacting to the blows fate and the author send her.

Weronika wants to see characters who are sympathetic – a term we writers have heard more than once and sometimes wondered how to reconcile with the need for the character to be flawed and undergo change.  But by sympathetic, she means not necessarily likeable, but justifiable.  Whether the character’s actions are right or wrong from the reader’s standpoint, they must make sense and be defensible from the standpoint of the character.  Engaging the characters in moral issues ties their need to be proactive more deeply into the story.

Once that is done, the best way, in her opinion, to gain sympathy for imperfect characters is to make them aware of their imperfections – to know their limits.  And we increase sympathy for our characters by increasing their knowledge of themselves.  A character lacking self-awareness – or at least the willingness to learn more about herself -- is the death of a story.  We ordinary human beings may stumble through life without insight or self-examination.  But whether or not we believe the unexamined life isn’t worth living, the unexamined character isn’t worth reading about.

The strength of fiction – the insidious, subversive strength that hooked us as readers before we even knew the words for it – is its ability to bring readers to self-examination vicariously, through lives of imperfect characters.  We may force ourselves to read nonfiction for self-improvement, or be forced to by teachers or course requirements.  But it takes the emotional engagement of fiction to make us love it.

(Next week:  Fellow bloggers are full of stories about why good writing doesn't -- or does -- sell.  I look at some of the reasons.)


  1. I think a lot of my stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. I've heard that literary fiction tends to be c driven, but I don't write literary at all! I completely agree about the emotional engagement. I want my readers to laugh, cry, feel joy/hope/anger, etc. If I can't do that, then I think I've failed. Great post!

  2. I like Weronika Janczuk's point about making sure characters are active, not passive. I think it's easy to write characters who react emotionally and physically to plot events, but getting them to take charge and take the story in new directions is harder.

  3. Thanks Kris & Andrea -- I like the formula -- inciting incident can come from the outside but every other major change should be from the protagonist.