An expertly written and developed character is a life companion. And in the same vein, a perfect plot will never be forgotten. I’ve read books with great plots and good characters and books with great characters and good plots. And still, I enjoyed them all. One side of the literary seesaw rocking lower doesn’t necessarily take away the merit of a novel in the eyes of the reader. But for us writers of fiction, we have to know the importance of each because while readers may be fine with good, they won’t waste their time with bad.
As authors, we have to ask ourselves which element is the more crucial? More pivotal? Where should the lion’s share of our focus be? And can there be a concrete rule at all? Perhaps the question is unanswerable, the possibilities somewhere in the gray. Maybe. Maybe not. People or the story? That’s the question, but is there a black and white answer?
Spoiler alert: Yes, there is.
But before we get into the why and what, let’s spotlight them both.
Plot is somehow both the backbone and the brain of the body that becomes an author’s novel. A strong story keeps the reader on their feet and moving and the reverse is also true. A weak hand writing contrived or unrealistic circumstances will paralyze the reader’s interest. That’s where you get the did-not-finish admissions or if the reader is anything like me, the finished-out-of-spite complaints. And spite reading equals an angry review(TBH though, as an author, I prefer an angry review over no review. I mean, anger is better than indifference, right?).
And while it is the heart that pumps blood, it wouldn’t do so if the brain didn’t tell it to. Every single move your character makes is confined to the maze the plot creates. Its twists and turns are theirs. Think on Jane Eyre(Yes, I know I always use this one. It’s my fav. Not sorry.). Every step Jane takes from her evil aunt’s home to that despicable boarding school to Thornfield Hall to the moors is overshadowed by the secret hidden away in Mr. Rochester’s upper room.
Let’s consider even the pandemic when ruminating on plot. I mean, it’s invaded every other aspect of our lives as it is, so why not our metaphors? Take two characters and toss them into the middle of 2020 and COVID will compel them to move and the reader to keep their eyes on the page. And plot not only keeps the characters moving. It also influences who they become. Look at what COVID is now doing to us at our core. We all will be different people when we reach the other side of this. The person we were destined to be had COVID never been is lost forever. Good or bad, we will be what it makes us, our character weaved into the timeline.
And if the plot is the body’s brain and backbone, character is the heart.
In every. Conceivable. Way.
Character is the reason we care what happens and the fire that fuels our need to watch a villain get their comeuppance. Throughout the pandemic, I have seen stunning examples of love and generosity from people and I’ve also seen actions born of fear, greed, and selfishness. The maze keeps them going and it also shapes who they are.
Your characters’ character makes or breaks your book. If they’re one-dimensional or unrealistic and inhuman, you can put a plot twist on every page and the reader still won’t care what happens.
And how do you make certain your characters don’t become victims of bad writing?
Should you rattle off long descriptions of who you want them to be? Filling the pages with corresponding adjectives between the dialogue. They are kind and trustworthy or mean and pernicious. Nope. Don’t tell me what they are. Tell me what they do.
Let’s look back again at Jane. What Charlotte Bronte says about her isn’t what makes her a character. Her aunt’s hatred, Mr. Brocklehurst’s cruelty, and Mr. Rochester’s passion and deception make up the maze Jane must walk through, but it’s what she does in the maze, the turns she takes, that piece together her character page by page. When she was thrown in the red room for punishment, the author didn’t say, ‘Jane was scared,’ the author told us how she screamed. When her friend fell sick, I didn’t read ‘Jane was sad,’ I watched her crawl into that small bed and hold Helen in her arms as she stopped breathing. And when she was faced with Mr. Rochester’s betrayal, I didn’t read ‘Jane felt like giving up,’ I followed her as, instead of doing what was easy, she fled crying out onto the moors to an uncertain future.
It’s the actions a character takes, the decisions they make that connect them to the reader, that brings them to life. Characters are the center of the story. Why should a reader care when a character is cut if they don’t bleed because the author forgot to add a heart? And if the heart of the story isn’t beating, it’s not a body you have but a corpse, not a novel but paper.
So, what does that mean for the question? What do you need to be best at? The answer is both. You can’t afford to neglect either. Both need to be great. Both need to be the voice in your head telling you to do better. The answer is clear. The problem is that none of us are perfect. I will never write a book with perfect plot and perfect characters. I’m only human.
I guess it’s all hopeless then? Nope. It’s not about being perfect at either. It’s about trying to be. About never settling in your writing. About always trying to do better and be better at what we do. Talk to each other. Show each other your work and pick it apart. Read. Like, a lot! Want to be a better writer? Read, read, read. Strive for excellence every time you type/write/think a word and then you don’t have to worry about which ball is more important because you won’t drop either.
Disagree? Which aspect of a novel do you think is most important? Or, how do you strive to be a better writer? Comment below with your tips and opinions!