This is the classic question. It’s phrased in just a way that doesn’t ask directly: “Which is more important: the plot or the characters?” but still asks a question that makes you question which is more important. How you answer this question determines how you will tell your stories.
To start out, it’s only fair to say (and logical) that the plot and the characters are mutually exclusive. You can’t have a story without the plot, and you can’t have a plot without the characters. If one of these crucial elements is missing, you can’t have a story. So as far as the story’s existence is concerned, both are equally as necessary (read: vital).
But, the question still stands: should you make the plot for the characters or the characters for the plot? Which should be central? One’s gotta revolve around the other, so I’m hereby dismissing this namby-pamby “I can make them both for each other” crap. There’s an answer to this question, and we’re getting to the bottom thereof.
One of the first things you need to know is that one of the two (be it the plot or the characters) is going to suffer because of the other. This is natural. To be honest, one should take precedence over the other. They are of equal importance as far as the story is concerned, but not as far as which should be more prominent.
Think of it this way: there are two main kinds of stories when it comes to this. There are plot-driven stories and character-driven stories. Plot-driven stories can suffer as far as the character is concerned, but adds all sorts of great plot twists, revelations, and betrayals. There is usually more action than its counterpart.
Character-driven stories are usually filled with more drama and are typically more cerebral. Not that plot-driven stories can’t be that way, but it’s easier to explore the intricacies of a human being (since they’re much more deep than your average plot) than it is the plot of a story.
So, the question could be adequately rephrased: should a story be more plot-driven or more character-driven? Ideally, you could have a story both with great plot twists and amazing character revelations, but one would still be stronger than the other, if only slightly.
Here’s how I look at it: do heroes go on adventures, or do adventures go on heroes? Does the hero make the adventure, or does the adventure make the hero? Does the writer start with an adventure and then add people to go on it, or does the story start with a hero who finds an adventure?
Heroes go on adventures, of course. The plot is something that happens to the character(s). You don’t tell the story from an objective, historical view: you tell it from the perspective of your characters. The reader doesn’t follow the plot directly: it follows the characters who follow the plot. Or, put more simply, it follows the plot through the characters.
The adventure is unpleasant. It involves a bunch of things that the hero probably doesn’t want to go through. The hero may cause the adventure, but so many things that happen are out of their control. They don’t make the adventure for themselves; rather, the adventure shapes the characters into something else.
Obviously, the story starts with a person. The greater events of the story come later, after all the other starting characters are introduced. The adventure is made for the characters to go on, and not the characters for the adventure.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you should let your plot sag for the sake of character development. Make them work together. Realize that they’re existence is equally important, but always keep in mind that the plot is made for the characters, not the other way around.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!