Plot vs. Character? (Encore)

For as long as I can remember, people in the writing community have debated the issue of plot versus character — which should drive a story? One side of the argument claims a complex plot will generate enough conflict to keep all the characters busy, and therefore interesting. The other side points out that if a character isn’t developed well enough, readers won’t care what happens to them, and the complexity of the plot becomes moot.

My own feelings fall somewhere in the middle. When writing a story, be it a novel of epic proportions, a short story, or a bit of flash fiction, there’s no reason why it can’t offer both good characters and an interesting plot. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.

The nice thing about plot is its adaptability.  One can start with a basic action plan and use it in almost any genre. Here’s an example from one of my writing classes. It’s about as basic as it gets:

  1. The point of view character (POVC) has run afoul of the primary authority figure where they live.
  2. They must leave or suffer consequences.
  3. They have three opportunities to make their exit.
  4. The first two exit opportunities don’t work for them.
  5. They choose the third exit opportunity, but it turns out not to be as advertised.
  6. Something unexpected happens.
  7. The story ends.

In terms of 7-point plotting, the first two items on the list provide the opening: a Person, in a Place, with a Problem. Items 3-5 provide the Try/Fail elements. Item 6 is the Climax, and item 7 is the Denouement (“The marryin’ and the buryin'” according to Mark Twain).

At face value, the plot isn’t intriguing. In fact, it’s cut and dried. But notice how easily it can be bent to fit almost any genre, and there are no restrictions on the POVC. If this were to be a fairy tale type fantasy, the lead character could be an elf, a unicorn, a dragon, a princess, or virtually any sort of creature which might inhabit that domain. Or it could be a western in which a crooked politician, a wealthy rancher, or the owner of the town’s only saloon calls all the shots. The POVC could be a cowboy, an Indian, a barmaid, a schoolmarm, or whatever.

The same framework could easily support a space opera, a romance, a detective story, or a tale of the macabre. When I present the framework in my classes, I ask the students to choose any genre that appeals to them and use it.

I also ask them to select a premise for their story — just a simple sentence to guide the direction of the tale. There are a gazillion possibilities, most of which come neatly packaged in cliches. F’rinstance:

  • Honesty is the best policy
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Love conquers all
  • There’s honor among thieves
  • Befriend everyone; trust no one
  • Better lucky than smart
  • Etc.

A premise can be a remarkably handy device. And, like the simple plot framework, it’s flexible. Take any of the examples above for instance, and reverse the sentiment:

  • Honesty is NOT the best policy
  • ALWAYS look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Love conquers NOTHING
  • Honor among thieves? Are you kidding?
  • Befriend no one; trust everyone
  • Better smart than lucky

I suspect you’ll find it much easier to write the story with these three things already in hand: Plot framework, Genre, and Premise.

From there just pick a POVC you find interesting, plug him (or her, or it) into the opening scenario, and you’re cleared for take-off. The premise will make it fairly easy to determine why and how the first two exit options aren’t suitable and why the third one is.

I usually stretch the writing assignment for this exercise over two or three weeks. I only ask for the opening — a couple hundred words, give or take — to be shared with the class when it next meets.

I’d love to see what some of my readers might do with this. Give it a try, and if you like what you come up with, let me know, and I’ll tell you how to forward it to me. If there’s enough response, I’ll feature some of the openings in a future post.

Now, get busy!


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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2 Responses to Plot vs. Character? (Encore)

  1. Gerald W. Flinchum says:

    I’m busy! editing the Civil War crap I rolled out in 2017 & 2019. Almost done then back to my Vietnam project began in 1977. War & Peace it’s not!

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