If you watch a lot of romantic comedies and/or human dramas, and read romance novels with a passion, chances are that you are moved by aesthetics and feelings. You are probably deeply interested in reading about people, and how their lives and emotions are affected by relationships and events. Hence, when you choose to write a story of your own, you would mostly focus on the characters.
However, if you like action, sci-fi, and over-the-top tales involving end-of-the-world scenarios, chances are that you enjoy thrilling, plot-driven stories. Naturally, you would be motivated to think more about plot-structure when authoring a novel.
Rarely are our motivations that black and white though, and many writers tend to focus on both elements when creating stories. A balance is required to make a story work. Leaning one way or the other will also often determine the genre of the book. It might become a romance novel, as opposed to an action-thriller. On occasion, upon reading a book, it may be difficult to determine whether the story was based on plot or on the characters. Take Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, for example. Does the story rely on plot or character? I would choose to say both, rather than one or the other.
The story is fascinating in itself, beginning with a murder in a museum, but that alone would be a fairly ordinary start to a typical crime novel. It’s the way the characters are portrayed, and the secrets that are revealed about their lives, one hint at a time, that propels the story. Without those intriguing characters, the book would be better written as a documentary, and in fact it was originally based on various non-fiction reference material. Many great stories are crafted and developed this way.
Other books are easier to define as character-based or plot-driven. Wuthering Heights is an obvious example of a character-driven story. Take Heathcliff and Catherine out of the book and there is virtually no story left to tell. Romeo and Juliet would be another good example. Even Superman, although a comic, is character-driven, despite the fantastic storyline. Stories such as Rocky, Pride and Prejudice, Les Mise`rables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Memoirs of a Geisha, Carrie, The Great Gatsby, Life of Pi, the Harry Potter series and so on are fine examples of character-driven books.
So this brings us back to the question of what to focus on when you begin writing a story – characters or plot. Again, various people will be motivated by different factors. A woman fantasizing about a love affair might focus on characters, resulting in a romance novel, or something along the lines of the now famous Fifty Shades of Grey. A guy who is fascinated by sci-fi might attempt to dream up a fantastic storyline for a book, and hence would focus on the plot.
As mentioned previously, there needs to be a balance between both elements. A purely plot-driven story with ‘cardboard characters’ will leave the reader feeling unmoved and unable to relate to the story, whereas a book that focuses too heavily on characters will bore some readers, or be totally unappealing to them in the first place. Rarely does a person who enjoys action-thrillers buy a Harlequin romance novel.
What comes first then - the story or the characters? Again, this will be different for different writers. In my case, the story comes first. As I proceed with my novel, the characters become more developed. I have been working on my current novel for so long now that my characters are more like old friends – I know them so well. Hopefully, the reader will also be able to pick up on their various personalities and find them likeable. My book is essentially an action-thriller, set in Japan, with elements of romance, culture and history. Other writers, especially in other genres, might develop their characters initially, and the decisions those characters make or the situations that they find themselves in will help to propel the plot of the story. This may involve the creation of a ‘character arc’ first, showing how the character changes and develops over the course of the story. The story might have a moral as its theme.
Some authors like to write ‘blind’. That is, they don’t initially develop any scaffolding for their novel, but rather let themselves be taken by their imaginations wherever it leads. Usually, in this case, the focus will be on a character or characters, and a ‘what if’ situation. What if the character witnesses a brutal murder, and is seen by the killer(s) before running off into the night? Will the character go to the police, or decide not to get involved, perhaps fearing for their own safety?
What would you do if World War Three broke out while you were camping in the mountains? Would you return to your half-demolished, irradiated city, or continue to try and live in the wilderness? Would there be someone that needed your help, or perhaps someone that could join you in your quest to survive? What dangers would you be afraid of in this new and terrifying state of the world? How would you live?
The author might put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist and imagine what dangers and adventures they experience along the way during the writing process. Many authors prefer to carefully plot out their novel from start to finish, which usually involves a plot-driven story, and develop the characters as they go along. There is no right or wrong way to develop your ideas, and most writers will choose the path that suits them best, but it may be wise to remember that both realistic characters and an interesting plot are necessary in order to create an enjoyable story for the reader. In addition to this, the writer needs to consider the genre or market that they are writing for and attempt to follow the guidelines for that genre or market accordingly, if they wish to be successful in having their book published. I wish you all the very best in your writing, and look forward to reading your story. Good luck.
ⓒ Chris Ryall 2013