What are plot and character? One is just what happens and the other is who’s along for the ride… right? Nope. Until recently I didn’t even realize this myself, but there’s actually a lot more to it than that. Thanks to these two books that I read recently, I realized that plot and character together are the story. Some people even believe that plot and character are the same thing!
Okay. So what does that mean? Well, in the most basic sense, it means that the actual sequence of events in the story is only half of the story you’re telling. The other half is your main character: his or her identity and reactions to the things that are happening. In a good story, those reactions then become choices, based on who the character is, that directly affect the events around him or her. In other words, one of the main purposes of the action is to get a response out of your character.
For the majority of the story, these responses are going to come out of some basic flaw or false belief that the character has. If your character is a coward, he or she will run away from danger; if your character can’t trust other people, he or she will probably refuse to work with others. The problem is, this flaw is just adding fuel to the fire of whatever conflict you’ve set up. Characters always make life worse for themselves, and they don’t even realize it!
It’s only when their flaws lead them to lose everything, some time near the end, that they realize what’s really going on–that a big chunk of their problems are actually because of things they’ve been doing. It’s a huge slap in the face that makes the protagonist wake up and take responsibility. They learn to overcome their flaws, and when they get to the climax of the story, they show off this transformation in a spectacular way. The protagonist will do something that he or she could never have done at the beginning.
In the end, most successful stories get that way because readers identify with characters while they’re going through this ordeal. They come out of their reading with a sense that they learned something–because the character learned something. This process is what makes a good story tick.
For now, just keep this idea in mind as you continue to write. We’ll look at the different aspects of this concept in future Plot and Character articles.