Which Drives the Story?
Many writers are faced with the decision about whether to develop their story’s plot or the main character first, and which element to use to drive the story. There are well-established camps on both sides of the argument.
There’s a simple answer and a complex, but better, answer to this question. You can start with either plot or character, and use whichever element you prefer to drive your story.
Plot-based stories tend to be genre mainstream books like mystery, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, etc, because the plot formula dictates the type of story you’re writing.
Character-based stories tend to be literary, and the story runs as a study of human behaviour, emotions, and weaknesses.
The more complex answer to the plot versus character question is to start with the element that fascinates you most, but to bring both plot and character into the story at some point, and go back and retro-fit character to plot and plot to character. Alternatively, you can plan the entire book out beforehand and move scenes around to allow the plot and character to play off each other throughout the book.
If you begin with a fascinating character whose traits, experiences, and psychological make-up you want to explore, the best way to do that is to thrust the character into a situation that will test their strengths and weaknesses.
Or, if your starting point is an intricate plot full of twists and turns, try experimenting with different types of characters to see how they might change the plot by their different reactions to a situation.
Both your plot and your character should undergo changes of some sort. The plot is the problem that the character has to solve, followed by further obstacles as he begins to solve sections of the plot.
The midpoint of the story is when a pivotal change occurs. This could be plot-based: the circumstances change, either by natural or unnatural forces, or the actions of minor characters. Or it could be character-based: the main character solves the clues, or finds something to help him understand the situation differently. From here the story moves towards the climax as the main character resolves the situation.
With character-driven stories, the problem is usually caused by a weakness in the main character that has to be overcome before he can resolve the problem that makes up the story. The pivotal point is when the character understands this and takes the first steps to right his weakness.
A plot-driven story begins with a problem that is external – in a thriller, this might be a terrorist attack, in a fantasy it might be an unwelcome summons by the king. The characterisation influences the plot by the reaction of the main character to the problem. At the pivotal point, the character finds the tools, internally or externally, to solve the situation.
All writers plan and write differently, and you should experiment with different techniques to develop your craft. But ultimately the best way to write is the way that works the best for you.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in August 2006. © Elsa Neal
If you need more help developing your story's plot and its characters, try these books:
The Plot Thickens : 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman
45 Master Characters : Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Schmidt