Is Plot or Character More Important?

Structuring Your NovelThis article is by K.M. Weiland.

“Plot vs. character”—we hear it all the time, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Either your book is plot-driven or character-driven. Can’t possibly be both, right?

And anytime we run afoul of an either/or conundrum, you gotta know people are going to start believing one or the other is not only the best way, but even the only way to write a book.

Let’s consider this a little more microscopically. What would it take to make one or the other of these combatants “more important” than the other?

Why Plot Is More Important

Plot is story. It frames the conflict and thus the action. It generates high-concept premises. Speculative fiction, with its solid basis in high concepts, is firmly rooted in the tradition of plot-driven stories.

Where would Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, and Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows be without their killer plots? Awesome characters who sit around poking each other on Facebook, instead of duking it out with magic in high-stakes, winner-takes-all plots, just won’t cut it.

Plot is structure. The classic three-act structure (which I discuss, in depth, in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story) is what creates and guides a strong plot. No structure, no plot, no story—or at least no story worth reading.

Why Character Is More Important

Character is also story. More than that, character is the heart of story. What good is a killer plot without the actors who bring it to life? Stakes only matter insofar as there are people to gain or suffer by them.

Readers relate to stories through the characters. Cool magic systems and world-ending conflict may be interesting on a surface level. But they’re only worth reading about because of the worth of the characters who use the magic and live through the conflict.

Turns out that character (specifically character arc) is also structure. Characters and their conflicting inner and outer goals create the thematic questions that frame our stories. We can come up with a perfectly structured plot, but if we haven’t also created a structured character arc, our stories are likely to turn out drier than a matzo cracker.

Why Plot and Character Are Equally Important

Plot and character don’t exist in a vacuum. We could make several arguments for why one or the other is slightly more important. But, honestly, whatever answer we may come up with (and we’re likely to each come up with different answers) is academic.

Here’s the truth: to create a powerful story, we can’t afford to neglect either plot or character. Instead of having them wage war against one another, we need them to work together.

A perfectly structured plot will never live up to its potential without an equally solid character arc.

A compelling character arc will never be able to hold up its own weight without a properly structured plot.

More than that, the various aspects of structure and character arc must be built one upon the other. The First Act (in which we set up the plot by introducing characters, settings, and stakes) is also where we will be introducing the beginning stages of the character arc (the character’s overall goal, his greatest need, and the lie he believes which is holding him back from achieving that need). They all mesh together! How cool is that?

No need to pick one over the other. When we understand how plot and character can (and should) work in perfect harmony, we get the best of both worlds. And so do our readers.

About the Author:

K.M. Weiland

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

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AnnD
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AnnD

Thanks for a great post. I wrestle with this topic a lot because I find more people lean towards character than plot. For me, if I recall my favourite novels, what I remember is the plot, the cool worlds and the amusing situations.

Kate Hill
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Kate Hill

Both are important, however a weak plot doesn’t bother me nearly as much as uninteresting characters. Also good and bad are often subjective. No book or movie has ever become my favorite because I was impressed by the plot, but because I love or hate the characters.

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

ALB125 It really is a bit of a chicken/egg dilemma. In the end, why would we want to pick one or the other when we can – and should – have both?

ALB125
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ALB125

I would say both are important. Fail with one and the other will suffer, strong characters can help a weak plot but they will suffer for it. If I had to choose I would say characters then plot, but it would be a tough choice. 
A plot which isn’t up to muster will lose the reader, and unconvincing or shallow characters will detract from the enjoyment. As a reader I need to believe in the character and to care and if I don’t then I don’t care for the book. There was a book I started not long ago and the characters had little to no background, there was no world building and although the plot had potential I couldn’t be bothered to finish as I simply didn’t care. Reading is an emotional experience, escapism in its purist form and those for a while we are those people, we live in that world and if its a weak world, or weak characters then a reader may feel cheated.

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

KuokMinghui Another great analogy. Plot and character are inseparable. Hard to have one without the other. And the stronger one is, the stronger the other will necessarily be.

KuokMinghui
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KuokMinghui

I used to believe characters tell the story and I still see things this way. However later on, I also discovered the story will always define the characters. It’s just like the human body where you’ll have the skeleton and organs, heart and brain.

CiaraBallintyne
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CiaraBallintyne

Laura_Gallier Without a doubt mythicscribes

Laura_Gallier
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Laura_Gallier

CiaraBallintyne mythicscribes Exactly! People talk about their most hated and favourite characters. They’re what stick with us.

CiaraBallintyne
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CiaraBallintyne

Laura_Gallier Plus, readers fall in love with characters. they care about the plot because of the character mythicscribes

Laura_Gallier
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Laura_Gallier

CiaraBallintyne mythicscribes Character. A well developed character can carry a weaker plot, a weak character leaves nothing to enjoy.

Michelle Snyder
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Michelle Snyder

For me as a reader I get bored fast with no plot, so a great character won’t carry, yet, even with an interesting plot, if the characters fizzle I won’t finish reading the great plot.

JL_Campbell
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JL_Campbell

ClosedTheCover mythicscribes True that

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

@ClosedTheCover JL_Campbell mythicscribes This is one of those best of both worlds things. Why choose one over the other when we get to have both, right?

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

@Chris Dreesman If we HAD to choose, then I’d choose the same as you. All things considered, characters are much more likely to stick with us than plots (although there are absolutely exceptions). But even already memorable characters can become more memorable when they’re featured in a good plot.

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

@Walter Williams It really does all come down to the skill of the author. Writing is about balance, in so many areas, and never more so than as it regards plot and character.

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

@Keith W Wilson You hit the nail on the end in what you say about it being a waste to come up with great characters and then fail to give them an equally great plot in which to show off their stuff.

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

@Elizabeth Thompson And I couldn’t have said it any better. Removing the importance of either character or plot from a story is like removing either the peanut butter or the jelly from a PB&J sandwich. By themselves, they might be pretty good – but they’re *not* a PB&J sandwich.

Dennis Dantes
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Dennis Dantes

The reader must relate to the characters … he must love them, that is the secret of a successful fantasy novel.

Dennis Dantes
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Dennis Dantes

Both are equally important.

ClosedTheCover
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ClosedTheCover

JL_Campbell mythicscribes PLOT. I can forgive a crappy character if I love the story but a phenomenal character can’t save a crappy plot.

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

So glad you enjoyed the post!

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

ElisabethZguta Thanks for reading!

LindaPennell
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LindaPennell

CaseyWyatt1 mythicscribes Great article and I sooo agree with your points!

Chris Dreesman
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Chris Dreesman

If you HAD to have one over the other, I would say character is more important. Plot points a reader can relate to, but characters can become people readers identify with.

Walter Williams
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Walter Williams

Great characters doing nothing is boring, and somethings things happen to those great characters that are not related to what they’re trying to do. That is plot intruding. Sometimes the intrusion of plot is distracting, sometimes it is breathtaking. It is all in the skill of the author.

Dan Bristol
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Dan Bristol

SANDWICH

ElisabethZguta
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ElisabethZguta

A great post – thank you

Keith W Wilson
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Keith W Wilson

It seems that I’m in agreement with the other sentiments here. No matter how awesome the story, without great characters then the story seems flat and lifeless. It, likewise would seem a waste to have well thought out and developed characters in a poorly conceived story.
While great characters can improve a so-so story, a poor story will distract from how well the characters shine. I do believe though that as you consider the characters of a story they can inform the story as you go just through considering how they would look at the situations your placing them in. Well written characters can often take on something of a life of their own.

Elizabeth Thompson
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Elizabeth Thompson

I think you need both. A wonderful character cannot rescue a poor plot and a great story cannot be held up by uninteresting and boring characters. I believe they are symbiotic

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

Thanks so much for having me today!

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

So far, we’re unanimous on that! 😀 And I think most readers would probably be apt to agree. But when we can harness both powerful characters and a powerful plot, we only multiply our story’s potential.

KMWeiland
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KMWeiland

Ultimately, I err in the character camp as well. If I love your characters, I’ll forgive many a plot ill.

Bex Pavia
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Bex Pavia

Personally, I think you can have an average story made all the better with vivid, well-rounded characters, but a great story can be less immersive if it is let down by boring, unrelatable, 2D characters. EDIT: Having said that, I agree with the article in that both are equally important. 🙂

Tony Dragani
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Tony Dragani

While both are important, as a reader I connect more with great characters. I’m willing to forgive a less than stellar plot if the characters are fresh and engaging.

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