Which is more important: characters or plot? Writers have been locked in that debate for centuries. Plot-oriented writers argue that conflict engages readers. But character-oriented writers insist that readers only care because they relate to the characters. The truth? Both sides are correct because the question is based on a misconception.
While many writers lean toward one camp over the other, most agree that characters can’t be isolated from the plot (and vice versa). Without characters, a story becomes a mishmash of meaningless events. And without meaningful events, the characters never evolve.
Characters and plot should always be connected, but how? Sure, a character’s actions make the story progress, but without more specific instructions, you’ll be assembling a puzzle without the picture on the box for reference.
Fortunately, authors have hidden these directions in their stories for years, and if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the strings tying a character to the plot are events and consequences.
Events Shape Character
Events are experiences (often negative) that influence a character’s behavior at the opening of a story. For instance, a boy raised among a bloodthirsty clan of Vikings will grow into an adult who believes that he deserves anything he’s strong enough to take. His brother confiscated his toys because he was too small to fight him. His father captured villagers during shore raids and forced them into servitude. Over and over, the people around him practiced a dog-eat-dog mentality until it became ingrained in him.
Usually, over the course of a character’s formative years, one event will stand out as being especially traumatic, forming what is known as his “ghost.” Perhaps the Viking I’ve described above vows to be the most brutal warrior in his clan because his brother left him to drown in a well when he was twelve.
To find your protagonist’s ghost, consider what worldview and personality you want to introduce her with. Does she have a lazy, laissez-faire attitude that drives her to avoid responsibility? Give her a family that prioritizes comfort over calling. Or, if she’s a hardcore individualist with few friends and a lot of bitterness, place her in an environment where sharing feelings brings insult and abuse. The events that wounded a character in the past should always coincide with her scars in the present.
Events, however, are the most basic method of character development and can’t propel the protagonist without allowing her agency over her choices. Her ghost whispers lies that define who she is, but how, when, and if she acts on those impulses is what determines her future. The consequences she reaps will then gradually teach her why she’s wrong—and unify the points of her arc so that each one follows a logical sequence, aka the plot.
Consequences Shape Character and Plot
Events either refine or degrade characters. But if disasters happen without a reason, the story will seem random and the characters’ responses insignificant. That’s why the fallout from a protagonist’s mistakes is more effective at inspiring change than any external problems you batter him with, no matter how intense.
For example, say the Viking character I invented earlier attacks a large settlement to prove how powerful he is. But the inhabitants are too numerous and skilled with weapons for him and his shipmates to subdue. After being injured in the battle, he expects to be executed, but his enemies offer him mercy—even nursing him back to health. The agonizing separation from his family combined with his captors’ kindness makes him realize that his existence is devoid of the beauty of redemption and grace.
Tweak the situation a tad, and the results can support the opposite interpretation. The Viking successfully plunders a coastline and sails home with stacks of loot and a hull crammed with slaves. The father of his love interest is impressed and finally grants the couple consent to marry. Instead of discovering the ramifications of his savagery, the Viking observes that tyrannizing the weak earns him respect from his tribe, which reaffirms his worldview.
When a character shifts his modus operandi without receiving consequences or rewards, the transformation comes across as artificial and the plot fractures. Consequences, however, unite both elements by encouraging a character to either abandon his lie or cling to it forever. The diagram is circular: the narrative governs who the character becomes, and who the character becomes governs the narrative.
In general, a character will start doubting his lie after the midpoint, then reject it during the climax. However, that doesn’t mean you should reserve all of the consequences for the conclusion. Instead, let the evidence that exposes the character’s lie accumulate and percolate until he needs to make his final judgment.
Now that you understand how events and consequences sculpt characters, you can move on to the process of organizing your ideas into a cohesive plot. Using the paradigm I’ve outlined, you can enhance four pivotal scenes of your novel.
Consequences Set Up the Truth During the First Plot Point
The first plot point occurs at the 25 percent mark and signals the moment of no return. Shortly afterward, the protagonist should have an opportunity to test and exhibit his lie.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go (beware that the rest of this article will contain spoilers for the book), Todd must flee Prentisstown or face a horrible, unknown fate. As he runs, he slams into Aaron, the psychotic preacher who’s been taunting him. The two fight, but Todd can’t bring himself to inflict a fatal injury. Since his entire town approves of and even celebrates violence as the mark of manhood, he thinks that he’s now branded himself a coward. Despite his outward restraint, his perspective is still warped.
Now, if you’re aiming to reinforce the lie instead of hinting at the truth, you can reverse your protagonist’s reaction so that she listens to her core misbelief and later pays for it. Imagine that you’re writing a middle-grade novel about an honors student who’s determined to stay at the top of her class, but her teacher pairs her up with the surliest boy this side of high school. When he refuses to build a science project with her, she spreads gossip that will get him suspended. In her mind, maintaining her perfect grades outweighs any mistreatment of other students.
Whether your protagonist continues backsliding or inches upward, the outcome of her decision will challenge its validity. However, if she suffers for upholding the truth, you need to provide other illustrations to counterbalance the impression that will leave. Although Todd encounters hardships for leaving the villain alive, he carries a diary that belonged to his dead mother, and the entries inside support his instincts: murder is immoral.
Whatever approach you take, remember that the purpose of the first plot point is twofold:
- It clearly reveals the protagonist’s lie. Because Todd beats himself up for sparing Aaron, readers know that he equates killing with manhood. Because the A+ student starts a vicious rumor about her classmate, readers know she’s an advocate of “the ends justify the means.”
- It’s the first domino in a line that ends with the protagonist’s biggest struggle at the third plot point. Her world tips and keeps toppling according to the trajectory of that triggering scene.
Consequences Shape the Protagonist’s Perception of the Lie at the Midpoint
Near the middle of a story, the protagonist has endured the pressure from the lie for so long that confronting it again causes him to snap, and the ensuing repercussions erode his confidence in how he’s been living. Grief and shame kick him in the gut. Any incident that’s less alarming won’t wake him up, because he’s been steeped in his culture’s ideology for years.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd spends most of the book berating himself for not spilling blood. Finally, in a fit of rage more at himself than at his victim, he slays a Spackle, one of his planet’s native species. Though he doesn’t recant his lie yet, the memory of his friend Viola’s horror and the creature’s terror torments him.
The consequences don’t need to directly strike the protagonist, though. Watching the lie harm someone else can have the same effect. In Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, Spensa’s civilization values honor above all else. Dying is preferable to surrendering their priceless ships to the enemy. But when Hurl, her wingmate, martyrs herself for that philosophy even though she had an outlet for escape, Spensa begins to lose interest in proving her own courage.
To generate hard-hitting consequences, jeopardize something or someone your protagonist cares deeply about—her mission, career, a friend, or family member. Because embracing the truth often involves going against the grain of society, it’s far more difficult than hanging onto a lie. The character needs a strong incentive to switch stances, especially since she must undergo one last gauntlet.
The Low Point Can Bolster Either Your Character’s Lie or the Truth
After the consequences at the midpoint, the protagonist will gravitate more and more toward the truth. But she’s not committed to it yet. Before she can achieve a happy ending, she’ll risk failing at her goal if she discards her lie.
In the case of the honors student, near the midpoint she overhears the classmate she’s been ostracizing telling a counselor about his dysfunctional household. Between cleaning up after his younger siblings, helping his chronically ill mom, and dodging his alcoholic dad, he doesn’t have much time to focus on homework. Out of sympathy (and no small amount of guilt), the protagonist attempts to befriend and tutor him. But within a couple months, the time she’s devoted to her new friend causes her grades to plummet. If she doesn’t ace her next assignment, she’ll be required to attend summer school. Under the stress, she stops helping her classmate study for an upcoming test. When he flunks it and reverts to being a grumpy recluse, she recognizes that her obsession with success is hurting others.
The aftermath of a protagonist’s regression in the low point should either propel her toward a different path or convince her to exchange a selfish ambition for a nobler pursuit. This will lead her to accept the truth in the climax and end both the plot and her arc. However, you can also add another layer of complexity by flipping the scenario: she acts on the truth only to regret it.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, because Todd didn’t annihilate Aaron during the first plot point, he kidnaps Viola. When Todd manages to rescue her, Aaron snaps his dog’s neck, which makes Todd question his determination to avoid killing.
In Skyward, Spensa’s plane is shot down during a dogfight, and if she ejects before the crash, she’ll damage her reputation. After seeing her friends needlessly giving up their lives, she preserves her own. But, as she feared, her instructors dismiss her from flight school.
In both scenes, the characters choose rightly, but chasing the truth can be complicated. It doesn’t guarantee prosperity or love or even survival. However, other parts of the story should demonstrate that overcoming the lie is worth the pain. The more closely you can reflect the brokenness of reality—and the hope that leaks through the cracks—the more powerful and memorable the climax will be.
Consequences Shape the Protagonist’s Sacrifice in the Climax
The climax presents the protagonist with an ultimatum: latch onto the lie and walk off unscathed, or leap over to the truth and potentially cripple his ability to fulfill his goal. If he believes he’s a wimp unless he can defeat every opponent on his own, overwhelm him so that he has to request backup from the general he hopes to impress with his bravado. If she believes she has to earn forgiveness, put her on the chopping block for negligence at work until her supervisor intercedes so that she learns how to accept grace when she doesn’t deserve it. Draft up a list of possibilities that align with your protagonist’s backstory, weaknesses, and longings, then pick the one that’s the most moving.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, Aaron catches up with Todd and tries to slaughter Viola. Todd is tempted to allow his anger to take control, but he now realizes that killing will destroy his soul and turn him into a monster, not a man. The three previous plot points showed him the pros and cons of the lie and the truth, so he defends his friend without any murderous intent.
For extra impact, you can include a foil character. Aaron, who joined the men of Prentisstown in massacring women and Spackles during a previous war, represents who Todd could become. The parallels in their development also emphasizes the long-term ramifications of maladaptive behavior, giving the protagonist yet another reason to grasp the truth.
A Climax Stands on Every Preceding Scene
Many great authors don’t use these plot points to define their characters’ struggles. However, all great stories treat a character’s pre-climax experiences as a trial run. In each scene, he dabbles with his flaws and reaps consequences. As the story advances, these costs multiply until his final verdict in the climax feels legitimate.
For your midpoint and low point to count, each intervening scene must contribute to the ending. Change is gradual, and once you master its pacing, your protagonist’s transformation will more closely resemble the growth you see and experience every day.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.