Plot vs. character
In writing for young readers, the two should walk hand in hand
Published: June 10, 2010
|In writing a children’s book, do characters drive your plot or does
your plot push your characters? Some books are considered more
plot-driven, while others lean toward being more character-driven. Yet,
a good character-driven book is not devoid of plot and the good plot-driven books still have well-formed characters.|
happens, though, if you feel more comfortable creating strong,
realistic, memorable characters but you struggle with plotting? Or
perhaps, like me, you have no trouble coming up with an interesting,
creative plot but have to work harder to show your character’s inner
motivation, needs and growth?
In doing a recent rewrite of a mid-grade science-fiction novel, I was encouraged to change my main character to someone new. I did, and now the plot has changed in many ways because the revised character has a different personality, different motivation, and different flaws to overcome. I’m having to re-create my plot through this new character’s eyes, building strong scenes that are not “told,” but seen through his experiences and needs.
Can character work without plot, or plot without character? Though a book may lean heavily one way or another and doesn’t have to be balanced, it is a weak book that doesn’t have both parts.
“I’ve seen plot as an expression of character and character as a consequence of plot—the right plot is the story that’s most perfectly suited to showcase a particular character. And the perfect character is the one that arises and is shaped by a particular plot,” says Brent Hartinger, author of Project Sweet Life.
A plot idea might be exciting, fun, quirky, different—but if my character doesn’t find his way into the plot and help mold it, then the story line’s not going to work. So my task is to build my characters in such a way that they’ll help create the story’s true direction because of who they are and what they want. In this way, their actions and reactions lead them to the resolution of their story.
If a book needs both strong plot and characterization and you know you’re strong in one area but weak in the other, what can you do? First, acknowledge the weakness. Then challenge yourself to grow and learn. Plot and character should walk hand in hand, even when one takes a bigger lead.
What if your characters are well-rounded but your plotting is weak?
“For developing plot, I think the best thing is keep a loose outline in mind, but then allow yourself to write against that outline,” says Amy Kathleen Ryan, author of Zen & Xander and Undone.
Adds Linda Joy Singleton, author of Dead Girl Walking and The Seer series, “Plot is simply a problem tossed on a character for them to solve. As I write, I throw problems at my characters and enjoy the developing conflict. I also choose characters who conflict with or complement each other.”
Now let’s look at the other potential weakness in your story: Your plot is strong but the characters seem stiff and one-dimensional.
“Stop thinking from the outside; start feeling from the inside,” says A.M. (Amanda) Jenkins, author of Night Road. “It’s like going back to being a little kid and playing make-believe. When you were a kid, you didn’t describe what your pretend character did, you ‘lived’ it. You put yourself into your character’s skin, and your voice, body and actions showed your feelings and intent.
“Go one step further as a writer: Don’t just live the scene; play it out in slow-mo and dissect it second by second, taking note of what you’re thinking, doing, noticing, feeling. Then—as a writer—your job is to take that second-by-second bit of life you just lived, and figure out what actually needs to be on the paper.”
|With my middle-grade novel Crown Me!, the story idea came first—I envisioned it one day at a Renaissance festival. I couldn’t wait to throw a modern kid and modern times in with things like a classroom dungeon and a bicycle joust. But until I realized that my main character, Justin, was obsessed with politics yet didn’t really understand good leadership, it was just a fun story without a complete character to be challenged and changed. Without my understanding Justin, it was just a series of events.|
When I got a contract for a six-title chapter-book series, I already knew the series’ basic plot. When the editor requested a more detailed outline for the publisher, I spent a week learning who my three main characters were—I knew all about their teacher, their families, the dog. Then I did a plot outline for each book. Each story line made more sense once I knew each character, because their quirks helped shape the story.
Singleton is strong on building exciting plots, but says, “I have to make conscious decisions about my characters, adding depth and traits to them that will enhance the plot.”
As you read about Lisa Yee’s characters in books such as Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), they become your friends. And though character is her strong point, it comes with hard work. “Before I begin any book,” she says, “I spend at least a week getting to know my characters. I want to be able to know how my characters will act no matter what situation I may drop them into.”
I can tell when my story isn’t working. The plot seems interesting, fun or creative, yet everything is falling flat. Aha! It’s characterization again. Can’t I have a deep plot without a deep character? Perhaps, but it’ll be a slight book.
“There is nothing worse for me than the empty feeling I get when I’m writing a bare-bones plot with cardboard characters,” says Robin Merrow MacCready, author of Buried. “For me it starts with a character in a situation.
“For my forthcoming book, Snapshot, my main character [Kendra] saw her father in a situation that could ruin her family. She had to decide whether to tell or not. It wasn’t special until I thought more about Kendra. From there I deepened the character, and that’s when I found that the plot deepened, too. Now she has weaknesses and strengths that make the story of her decision worth reading.”
Tracy Barrett, author of The Case That Time Forgot, says she often wrestles with how to move the story along “and I usually discover that the reason for this is that my character isn’t well-enough defined to do what it is I want her or him to do.”
So what can you do when a character is made of wood? Or your plot goes nowhere?
Study strong characters and plots. Find books whose characters are re-membered long after the book is read. Read books whose plot and story line make you want to read on and on. There are certain novels and picture books whose characters have stayed in my mind for years (e.g., The Twinkie Squad by Gordon Korman, and the Fancy Nancy books by Jane O’Connor). And there are stories where the plot has wowed me with its twists and turns, or the way it flows smoothly and makes me forget I’m not really walking alongside the character (e.g., the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, and Holes by Louis Sachar).
Dig deeper for stronger characters and plots. When you are strong in one of these areas, don’t give up on the other. Spend time building, creating and digging deeper into your story. Challenge yourself as a writer. If you’ve never outlined before, try it. If you’ve never created character sketches and really gotten to know your character and how he’d react to a particular problem, try it.
“Ask yourself, is this a real person?” Hartinger says. “Do I believe this person really exists, or is it just a coat rack on which to hang my plot? Spend time with this character and learn everything you possibly can about him or her. Get inside your character’s head. Dig down and find out who he or she is!”
Adds Barrett, “It helps if I can base the character at least partially on a real person and imagine how they’d react in a particular situation. In various rewrites, they lose that resemblance to a certain extent, but it’s definitely still there.”
Challenge strong characters with strong plotting. If your character’s struggle is easily overcome, readers won’t get as emotionally involved. “Make things worse for your character,” Barrett says.
Rebuild your characters as they journey through their story. This may take a lot of new planning, writing and rearranging.
“I’m a very disorganized writer who gets through a manuscript mostly on feel,” Jenkins says. “This means a ton of rewriting, moving things, gutting scenes, cannibalizing them if needed.”
When plot is a struggle, the story itself falls flat. If you have great characters with no place to go, you may have a character sketch, but is it a full-fledged novel? Whether it’s plotting or character that is your weak area, the best answer is digging deeper and working harder. And just like your character, you’ll have overcome your own story problem and grown and changed in the process.
In the end, what do your readers want? Do they care if you have both character and plot that are strong, memorable, well-thought-out?
“As a teacher, I pay attention to what my students read and what they care about,” MacCready says. “Sometimes they want drama, sometimes they want action, sometimes humor. Mostly they want to be ‘in’ a book. They want to be sucked in by good storytelling, and to me that means a good combination of character and plot.”
Kathryn Lay is the author of Crown Me!, a middle-grade novel, and Josh’s Halloween Pumpkin, a picture book. Her series Wendy’s Weather Warriors is due out soon. She has had 1,800 articles, essays and stories in magazines and anthologies. Web: www.kathrynlay.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of The Writer.)