Which is more important to a good story, characters or plot?
Aspiring writers often ask me this question and it’s tough providing a straight answer. It’s easy to say that if the characters in your story are flat, the greatest plot in the world will leave your readers flat, as well; but in order to have a good story, the characters need something interesting to do, get in trouble with, or at least talk about, which requires an interesting plot. It’s one of those ‘chicken or the egg’, catch-22 things. A good story is really a combination of good characters and a good plot. Leave one out at your peril.
But which is more important? Characters or plot?
I’ve written stories where I’ve spent months working on the career-defining plot, only to realize that, oops, I’d neglected to fully develop my characters — and that never ends well. Certainly I try to begin with a great story idea, and perhaps an outline of that idea, but like a good film director, once I start working I focus on my characters, letting them help me with the story as it moves along. They know more about themselves and where the story should go than I do, so why not enlist their help? As those of you who’ve experienced this know, when it’s working, and your characters are jumping off the page just to see what happens next, it’s thrilling, and a lot of fun, and when you manage to pull it all together at the end, you have yourself a good story. But like bad actors, characters who don’t give a crap, who couldn’t care less about themselves or their feelings, and who don’t react to who and what’s happening around them, doom your project to failure. Don’t waste months. That plot scribbled on a napkin by Stephen King at your high-school reunion won’t save you. Swallow your pride and move on.
Some of the most popular stories ever written have the simplest of plots: for example, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, or the classic films, Alien, The Big Chill, and even Home Alone — simple plots with fascinating characters resulting in unforgettable stories. On the other hand, we’ve all read books and seen movies with interesting, action-packed, potentially thrilling plots that were cut off at the knees by boring, even annoying characters (my apologies to Jar Jar Binks fans). These stories are unforgettable, too, but not in a good way.
As writers we should always strive to achieve the perfect blend of characters and plot, as Larry McMurtry did in his epic, Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, Lonesome Dove; but when that’s not in the cards, I give the nod to my characters.
Have any questions, thoughts, anything you’d like to add for John? Fire away in the comment section below!
“I’m a thriller writer who loves to write stories that force good people into terrifying situations – just to see how they react.” John Avery, Amazon International Bestselling Author of THREE DAYS TO DIE. Official website: John Avery Books
G. J. Owens will be here next week so be sure to stop by!