Which comes first? Character or plot? And how do they relate to each other?
Years ago, looking for my wedding dress, I ran across a curious problem. I had indulged when selecting dresses to try on. Things with layers and embellishments, interesting skirts and bodices. They were beautiful and unique. Lavish.
Eagerly I began the process of getting into them (it required help), and a parade of beautiful designs soon greeted me, one after another, from the mirror. Bit by bit, though, my excitement dimmed as I realized that, while beautiful, none of them looked right on me.
Now, I’m no runway model, but those dresses should have at least looked okay. Why didn’t they?
Well, my mother knew.
She handed me an A-line gown with trim and a subtle border, a basic scooped neckline. Simple, classic and elegant. Not nearly as elaborate as the dresses I was looking at. On the hangar, it looked almost boring by comparison. Truthfully, I tried it only to please her.
But it was perfect.
So what did my mother know that I didn’t take into account?
Me. I’m not particularly lavish or elaborate myself. I don’t favor beauty when it looks overly constructed. It strikes me more as artifice than authenticity, yet the dresses I chose were all those things. I find beauty in simplicity. I like things that are timeless and graceful. An excellent material. A good cut. Not a lot of ornamentation. And that was the kind of dress I needed.
You see, no matter how exciting the dress, the highest priority is that it should fit the person wearing it. The same goes for character and plot.
Ultimately, readers pick up books for characters. The way they change the landscape and the way the landscape changes them. True, we may favor a certain medium in our stories – genre, literary, whatever. But the story, the part that makes it good, is your character and how that character is going to transform between the words “Once upon a time” and “The End.”
Like the dress, the plot’s job is to create a sequence of events that specifically facilitate that transformation, that enhance the person within the trappings.
Does that mean you need to trash that awesome story idea you came up with? You know, the one with the great setting or the cool concept, but the main character’s still MIA?
But when you start coming up with characters, make sure the dress fits. Be certain that your setting and your concept really makes that character shine! After all, you can’t expect Lara Croft to sit down with Jane Eyre’s Rochester and be able to work out her issues. If your story is larger than life, your character should be too. Classic and understated? Dark and witty? Fast-paced and action-packed? It has to match the character!
Plot is all about providing the particular external catalysts that will force your particular character to deal with that issue, that broken inner paradigm that they absolutely, definitively want to ignore at all costs. Because that’s what we as readers came for. To watch that character we love land smack-dab in the middle dire straits, tailored specifically to unpack their inner baggage and help them get past it.
So if your story is struggling, you might check you character against your plot for a mismatch. Make sure the needs of your character are met by what the plot requires of them. Is it calling up in them, for better or for worse, that transformation process that is the heartbeat of every great story? And is it doing so in a way that fits them?