Character and Plot: A Healthy Codependence

Hypothetical: Someone walks up to you on the street and says, “Character or plot driven?”

Let’s go ahead and assume they’re not wearing their favorite shade of inmate orange.  Oh, and they don’t have on one of those snazzy jackets with the sleeves that latch together at the back.  Aside from slowly backing away while using your peripheral vision to scan for cops, what do you do?

For my money, the only correct way to answer that question is “yes.”

Like most things in life, the discussion of plot versus character driven fiction is a slippery one.  It’s not black and white, and anyone who says otherwise is either too inexperienced or too myopic to realize that all the fun debates are taking place in the gray areas.

For what it’s worth, I think character and plot are so interwoven that a discussion of one versus the other is really pointless.  Every story has (or should have) a plot.  There’s a story question to be answered.  Will the detectives find the missing child?  Will the chubby, awkward kid make the school wrestling team?  Will the young man in the life raft find rescue before the Bengal tiger he’s sharing the boat with eats him?

Depending on your tastes, these may or may not seem like questions worth answering, but if the fictional people struggling to answer those questions do not contain at least some level of depth and sincerity, the story will fall apart, regardless of whether or not the plot is engaging.  Story and character are in symbiosis.  Each informs and shapes the other.  While the external conflict is raging, an equally important internal struggle is taking place, and both will result in change.

At the core of every story is the journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar.  For those of you waiting for me to add “and back again,” I won’t.  Because it’s not true.  “You can’t go home again” applies equally to both real and imaginary people.  Even if your characters physically end up in the exact same place they started, things are different now because their adventures have changed them.  Even if it’s on a very subtle level, things will never be the same.

I recently read a quote attributed to Joseph Campbell that said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”  (For anyone wondering, it was in a blog by Scott Myers of  Absolutely fabulous.  I recommend checking it out.)  Change is often thrust upon us in life, and usually it’s unwelcome, uncomfortable, and messy.  How we react to that change, whether we choose to fight or accept it, shapes both the world around us and who we are as people.

The same goes for your characters.  An unexpected change should force them into unfamiliar territory.  There will be questions about how this change affects your character’s world and if the character has what it takes to survive in this new environment.  As they struggle along the way, your characters will be tested physically, mentally, and emotionally.  How they turn out is anyone’s guess, but that discovery is what keeps people reading.

Ultimately it’s about the journey, not the destination.  This is true for the characters as well as the author and the readers.  Our journeys are the plots of our lives, and all of those plots are character driven.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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