Naughty by Nature: Character and Plot’s Love-Hate Relationship

“Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The idea of plot-driven versus character-driven writing seems, at first, to be as opposite a question as nature versus nurture. Does your character develop out of the necessity of the plot, or does the plot drive forward because of your characters.

The convention, or at least the one I see most commonly preached in the endless stack of writing books I read, is that your plot should develop out of your characters. Essentially, if you put interesting characters in an interesting setting and watch what they do, you will have an interesting plot. With all due respect to the amazingly talented and knowledgeable writers of those craft books, that isn’t entirely true.

Your plot will be meaningless without good characters. No one will care if you have an amazing plot line if they don’t feel close to the characters involved in it. They have to see, smell, hear, and even feel the characters you write. But no one will care about your characters unless they do something interesting. They must be involved in an interesting conflict or it is all for naught.

This is not life. This is art. It isn’t enough to be reality television and have cameras following your characters around catching all of their torrid trysts and failings as if it is some textual Jersey Shore episode. Art is about the constant meshing of character, plot, and prose. That is what makes the medium of writing special.

Generally speaking, I approach most stories with a sort of screenwriting mentality. I know my premise and at least one or two plot points. I will have a general ending in mind, although it isn’t always the one I end up writing. Writing is like starting on a trip to the beach without knowing how you are going to get there. If you somehow end up on a skiing trip in the mountains, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you still have fun.

I have to at least have a premise before I know what sort of characters will serve my plot. As characters begin to develop, the plot will flesh out, maybe even change a bit, but still the needs of the plot are integral to deciding what characters my story will require writing.

It isn’t an either/or process. Storytelling is architecture. You need blueprints. You need to know what the building will look like, but you can’t go breaking the laws of physics because eventually the damn thing is going to have to stand on its own. If your plot and characters don’t work together, your story will suck.

Most writers will consider themselves good character writers or good plot writers. They will be more comfortable with one or the other, and they will concentrate accordingly. I’m sure some of my colleagues will swear by one or the other. But ultimately, the thing we all have in common is that we are willing to make sacrifices to our characters for the plot and vice versa.

Do our personalities shape our actions or do our actions shape our personalities? Who knows? Who cares? Leave the life questions to the philosophers. You have a story to make work. In writing, the answer to the question is always “Yes.”

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

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