Skip to content

It Wouldn’t Have Been A True Writing Class Without The Plot vs. Character Debate

Time for my second reflection about the suspence writing class I took last Spring. And of course it had to happen sooner or later: the plot vs. character dichotomy was introduced. And as is the case with pretty much everything that’s related to fiction writing, it’s hard to imagine there are hard requirements in one sense or the other.

Maybe it depends on the genre we’re writing in. When we think about a story involving a crime or some kind of mystery, we tend to focus more on the mystery itself. As we’ve seen in last week’s post, readers want to be carried away by the story, so that has to mean something in this regard, right?

Well, as you can imagine, it’s a bit more complicated than that. An important piece of information conveyed by the teacher is the fact that well crafted characters help this process of identification more than we’d imagine in the first place. Even a particular genre like the thriller, with its hard requirements about twists and coherence of the general story, is still very much driven by its characters.

And with character I mean both the good guys and the bad guys. I’ve always thought that there can’t be a good story without a complex and interesting bad guy. When my latest beta reader said that she wasn’t intrigued by We Gotta Get Out baddie, that was a hard blow for me and a lot of stuff I believed about the story I’ve told. But better to know now than after publication, right?

On the protagonist side, I learned that two very important aspects are the fatal flaw and the ghost. Fatal flaw is (as the name itself suggests) a flaw that characterises the character, while the ghost is something that haunts them and that is likely to come up throughout the story, and that in some cases is overcome as the protagonist solves the situation. Fatal flaw and ghost can be two sides of the same coin, and as much as this is more difficult, I’m pretty sure it would make things much more interesting.

This of course applies to other genres as well, and it’s a concept that is so easy to get wrong when you’re inexperienced as a writer. No matter how many books you’ve read, the moment you sit down in front of a keyboard and begin typing, your character is the most complex and original thing ever written. But oh boy how wrong are we.

I say this because I experienced it on my own skin. I thought I got the perfect fatal flaw the first time I tried to write Lorenza’s character, while in reality I had just made Lorenza and her friends plain misanthropistic assholes. A few beta readers pointed it out right away (they weren’t even motivated to finish reading the story, to tell you how much it disturbed them) and since then I tried to smooth them out and transform her in a self-centred but good-willing nerdy people pleaser who is afraid to show too much of herself.

Even after all these words about character, a lot of work is still on the story’s side. We crafted good characters, and now it is time to have the story “push them to their limits”. Story has to tie its own points in a way that is coherent with the arch and the characters. Sometimes it’s required to re-think a bit of a character in order to add an interesting angle to how they react in a particular situation.

The worst part of it all is that all the things I’ve just said must be taken care of in a clever way, of course: in a world where pretty much everyone can put a book out there (don’t get me wrong, I consider it a good thing) audiences are going to be very demanding when it comes to remember a story over so many others.

In general, each main character has one or more stories that fit their type, even though these story could not coincide exactly with what the writer had in mind when they started writing. I know this way of thinking is more leaning towards the pantser writer’s type, and this is probably why I tend to agree very much with it. Stephen King himself says over and over again how the stories he writes have been “told him by his characters”.

While this can sometimes lead to some of the weirdest pacing I’ve ever experienced (especially in The Dark Tower series*), I think it boils down to the same concept that was expressed in the class: the correspondence between a character and their own story and how much one influence the other.

Ok, we got the eternal plot-character debate out of the way. Next time I’ll talk about one of the unexpected things we discussed in the class (namely the impact of seriality on mysteries). Stay tuned

*Which is, to this day, my favorite book series. For some reason I always feel the need to specify that in my book weird doesn’t mean bad, at all.

Published inRamblingsReal lifeStorytelling

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *