Plot vs. Character

Some people say they don’t like plot.

For some people, plot is like a dirty word. They prefer their stories to concentrate on character. Or premise. Or language. It is action movies or thrillers by Michael Crichton or Robert Ludlum that have plots.

At Beemgee, we believe that the four pillars that hold a story up are plot, character, meaning, and language – with conflict as girders. Every story, no matter how “good” or “bad”, exhibits all four of these pillars. No story can really go without any one of them. Not to mentions aspects like story world, backstory, or exposition.

We have not found a single work of fiction in any medium or genre that does not have a plot. Ulysses has a plot. The Sound And The Fury has a plot. Even some of the most famous attempts in literary history to shun plot, such as I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume or Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, did not manage to avoid describing events and characters. Their language might be beautiful and to an extent their premise is the attempt to shun plot. But nonetheless, the stories describe events, things happen in an order, the authors made conscious decisions about the sequence in which to relate the occurrences. To what degree the narrative is structured in these books may be topic for debate, but if we consider plot to be simply a sequence of events, then no story can go entirely without it and still be considered a story.

There is an intimate relationship between characters and events. Indeed, it may be fair to suggest that in storytelling, the two are not really separate entities at all. They are two sides of the same coin.

The actions of the character make the action of the story, i.e. the plot. And it is the decisions the characters make that determine their actions.

Characters and plot events make story – the one could not exist without the other. Plot does not work if there are no people (or rabbits, or robots, or whatever) to make the decisions and perform the deeds that combine to make the story. There can be no events without characters to perform or at least experience them. If the narrative describes purely the sequence of, say, natural events, be it the eruption of a volcano or the growth of a flower, then you’re probably reading a report. If in a story, these entities – the volcano or the flower – act of their own volition, then they do so as characters, and thus do motivated things.

More usually, such occurrences are not intrinsically motivated as characters with volition, but they are events that occur dramaturgically, because they cause a response in the characters that experience them. As exciting as a volcanic eruption might be, it is that response to it in the characters that makes the events interesting to the reader or audience.

The overall effect of these two elements of story, character and plot, causes the audience to look for some kind of meaning to the story. And in order for the audience to experience the story, it must be conveyed in the language of a particular medium (text in the case of novels, or moving images and sound in the case of films).

But there’s no avoiding plot. And there’s no avoiding characters. Characters drive story. Events drive narrative.

Developing story material means growing a narrative out of an idea. You might start with an idea for a character or begin with a plot event, that is, an idea for a scene. If you start with an event, then you immediately ask yourself who is taking part in this scene. Who is performing the action, and why? If you start with a character, perhaps see this figure in your mind’s eye, then you immediately start asking yourself, what is this person doing? Which confrontations arise because of the character’s actions? Which forces motivate the character to do what she does?

So you see, there is no way to consider plot without character, and no way to consider character without plot.

If you consider plot to be more than just a sequence of events, if you think it is not plot until it has a narrative design, then read Story Structure and Plot Beats.

Related functions in the Beemgee story development tool:
Character Developer and Plot Outliner

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