A Comfortable Blend (Except When It’s Not)

I think that when we first conceive a story we all probably start with one or the other: a plot or a character. It doesn’t really matter so much as blending the two by the time you hit your final draft. I usually have a character, and sometimes a vague concept. Almost never a detailed plot. My examples:

When I wrote my first novel, I wanted to write about a punk stuck with a blind kid while trying to find the kid’s foster mother. The plot from there just happened as I interconnected the other characters. That novel is awful.

When I started my second novel I had a concept: a cyberpunk retelling of Sleeping Beauty, as told from the perspective of a character who wasn’t the Prince Charming analog. I followed that pretty strictly even when my characters started to deviate. By the second draft I had to pull back on that concept as the characters took the forefront. The undertones are still there, but it’s a lot less overt.

From this I gather that for me, crafting a novel has to be a balance of the character and plot or it just sort of falls apart.

What I find interesting is that not all stories and writers need that balance to rock an amazing story. There are stories where the characters are just a means for exploring the world and moving the plot, and stories where the plot is just a means of moving the characters together and solving their nonsense. The difference seems to be largely a matter a genre.

I just finished reading Pride & Prejudice for the second time (because I hate myself) and there’s no semblance of plot to that story. Things that happen in that story are contrived to get Darcy and Elizabeth to bone. Other characters just embody a single good or bad thing. Jane is always sweet. Kitty is flighty and ridiculous. Their mother is always a bit of a harpy. If it were a modern reality show on Bravo, it would be called Who Married Best.

In the other direction, lets take Raymond E. Feist. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve only read the brick that is Magician, and otherwise have listened to my husband wax poetic before bed at night. (I’m apparently his second-favorite author. Marriage foul.) Most of Feist’s characters are there to move us through this huge, intensely detailed world. The thing is huge. The wars are epic. The plots are intricate. Character die often, suddenly, and sometimes in completely inane, real-world ways. Didn’t one character die by falling off a horse? Andy says probably, and that it just happens.

Literary fiction is more character-driven, epic fantasy tends to be plot-driven. So, it’s interesting how the simple concept — plot or character first? — changes depending on the genre.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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