A New Look at Plot and Character

The Historical Perspective

Up until a few weeks ago, I thought of the story/plot as the main thing. There was also setting and characters, of course.

The characters coud be interesting, adding to the value of the story (like a bonus). R2D2, Darth Vader, the tinman, Norman (in Psycho), James Bond. Also, if you wanted to have the reader care what happened to a character, you would try to make that character "come alive."

Call that the "historical" perspective.


I changed my mind. The trigger was The Old Man and the Sea. That has a plot -- all books have to have a plot -- and perhaps even a clever plot. But the plot was thin, and the book was obviously about the Old Man. (IMO, it was Hemingway's answer to the question of what a man should be.)

So his character was not an addition to the plot or something to help the plot, it had become the story. Call that a Character Story instead of a Plot Story.

Which, oddly enough, corresponded to almost every story I had ever written.

The presenting problem at the time was if any books before that had been Character Stories. I haven't yet thought of any long before that time, but Mice and Men was obviously a Character Story.


What about that Tin man? With the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, The Wizard of Oz had three of the most memorable characters in our culture. Did that make it a Character Book?

The short answer is: No. (Even if it took me a long time to get to that answer.) If you reread my description of a Plot Book, it is well-known that an interesting character is good. In fact, an "interesting" character is a sign that a book is a Plot Book. To give one example:

The mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. The albino ...
That's from The Da Vinci Code, which has a fabulous, intrictate plot. The albinoism has nothing to do with the plot (or story for that matter).

And, it seemed to me, any description of a character signalled a plot book. There are two reasons for this. The main one is, if it is a Character Book, we are going to slowly learn about the character through what the character does and says and thinks and feels. (In other words, a "Show".) So only the Plot Book would have an extended "tell".

Looking at this implication a different way, the "interesting character" of a plot book was interesting as a description. It was, for the most part, what you could say about the character standing in an empty room doing nothing.

Which raises the question of what the character is in a Character Book. One answer is, it's hard to say. That's a property of using "show" instead of tell. But there is a more profound answer: In a Character Book describes how that character interacts with other people, the world, and the character's own thoughts.

And probably even the character's traits -- in a Plot Book we might learn that a character has a large birthmark on her face; in a Character Book, we learn how that affects her life and how she deals with that.

Categorizing Stories

It wasn't that hard to categorize some stories. I could give you a 5-minute summary of Jurassic Park and never mention more about the characters than what they did in the plot. Great Plot Book.

In one of my books, the grand finale is the two main characters stopping terrorists from setting off a bomb in the House of Representatives, then defusing the bomb as it counted down from zero. That has suspense and excitement, yes, but it was a pedestrian plot; I would call it cliche. But the point wasn't the plot, it was how the characters acted and interacted. Character Book. Plus I sat down with the intention of writing good characters and had no intention for plot.

One of my short stories began with the premise: What if someone made the decisions in her life by flipping a coin. I decided, eventually that I needed a new category: the Premise Book. For exampe. One book explores the premise, what if a boy's face was hideously ugly?

And of course it was always a theoretical possibility to have a Setting Book. I decided one book was actually that: The main character was brought into the USA at a young age and she and her parents are illegal immigrants.

A few books were not easy to categorize. But not as many as you might think.

Now, the exact categores might not matter. If you want to make up your own categories, you can. But I'm not seeing a lot of flexibility on these. In any case, my main concern is Character Book versus Plot Book

The Start

I started reading the starts of books, to see if I could tell from the start what kind of book it was. Sometimes I could. And those were good starts. Sometimes I couldn't. I didn't like those starts. And sometimes I kind of could. And I could see how to rewrite those starts to make them better, but emphasing what kind of book it was.

There are thousands of places you can find descriptions of good starts. I apparently am the first to give this advice: Think about what type of book you have, and write your start accordingly.

Here, I must make a caveat. You can write your start in a way that maximizes the chances of selling it -- to agents, publishers, librarians, and browsing customers. That can be -- and often is -- different from writing a good book. I am here now talking about writing a good book.

So, a good start to a Plot Book:

The old man fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
A horrible start to a Plot Book:
My friends were discussion shoes.
But that was my Character Book, and it continued:
They're excited, enthused, sometimes appalled, sometimes thrilled to agree. But something's bothering Celeste. Ugh. I'll try talking to her later. And why is that random guy at a jock table showing up on my radar?

I, Jade Wilson, am an emotions junky. I just . . . I just am. I love sitting here at lunch and sopping up emotions. I live for this.

That, to be honest, is perhaps an exaggeration, but it's the typical start to the Character Book.

Improving the Start

For length purposes, I can only give a few examples. One book begins with the MC talking to her friends. And it in fact introduces the setting, in a Setting Book. But my feeling is that the author was treating the book as a Character Book. Just a few more sentences about Setting would have improved the start, IMO.

I'm not making any attempt to improve on the actual start of The Old Man and the Sea:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
That first phrase is unnecessarily wordy, and we could all improve on that -- until you take it as the opening salvo in a Character Book. And then it's brilliant.

Axing the start? A prologue describing an action scene near the end of the book, in a Character Book. Ugh. A description of an irrelvant trait in a character at the start of a Plot Book.

Is There a Conflict?

Well, yeah. The obvious conflict is when your character woudn't do what is needed to make the plot continue. Then, many authors will bend the character to fit the plot. ("For some reason, she needed to more about what that noise was.") Consistency (nuancely defined) is necessary to create a character.

I suspect the opposite might also happen -- given a character, there are limitations to what can happen in the plot.

Is it possible to have a good plot and good characters? In other words a Plot Book and a Character Book? Yes, it has to be possible. I'm not sure there are any. To the extent that a story comes close, it tends to be a great story. I'm not sure I could categorize Speak, Twilight, or the first Harry Potter. Both Hemingway and Steinbeck seemed to find a harmony between character and plot.

At first I thought that the start forced the author to choose. But there are ways of writing the start to show off both parts of a book.

There is at least one more issue. The Fault in Our Stars is most obviously a Character Book. About 2/3 of the way through, the plot lines end and Green (the author) had the problem, what comes next? Had it been a Plot Book, he could have Gus have a recurrence of his cancer, which he fights, and we think he has defeated but then it comes back and it looks like he will die. His girlfriend, the MC, then finds a new experiental cure, Gus's parent fight to get him enrolled in the new treatment but fail, then Hazel writes something online and it goes viral and Gus is accepted into treatment. For some reason he has to do something difficult and heroic to get the treatment to start, then he is finally saved.

Um, typical Plot Book. We all know how to write those. In fact, Gus's cancer did come back. But the reader is told, from the start, that Gus is going to die. The last third of the book is watching him die, etc.

My theory is this. You can read a book to find out what is going to happen. Will he die? Will the world be saved? And if you are doing that, you will pay less attention to character. You are reading faster, for one; those things are less important, for two.

So we can take Green's choice here as showing a lack of basic awareness of how to write a good plot. I take it as one of the best choices I have ever seen an author make.


One of my books began with a premise: What if the Holy Grail appeared in the MC's attic and people came to visit it? In one scene, Siamese Twins show up. That has little to do with the plot; it is a tour-de-force of exploring how Siameses Twins might behave.

But that wasn't enough for a book, so I gave her a bad leg, made her pregant, and (plot-device) she was bad at making decisions and hadn't told anyone about the pregnancy. So that part was a Character Book.