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This Writing Life: Does Plot = Character?

1 October, 2012

When learning about writing fiction, it usually isn’t long before a maxim something along the lines of ‘plot equals character’ turns up. The idea here, of course, is that the plot of any story is based on the actions of the characters, and that the two are therefore inseparable. Even if all your characters do is sit around and talk (à la ‘Waiting for Godot’, perhaps), that’s still a plot, and it’s your characters that have formed it.

I was thinking about this rule the other day though, and began to have my doubts. It certainly holds true for many genres – you’d have no plot at all in some romances without the interaction of the central two characters – but what about fantasy? If there’s any genre at all that can have plot without character, it’s got to be fantasy and SF, which has traditionally been very idea-heavy.

And, aha! I even came up with some examples. Take a natural disaster, for example, or the workings of a complex magical spell – both could create a plot without the intervention of characters. A volcano doesn’t wait for permission before it erupts, and perhaps that spell was the work of an individual long-dead. The events it triggers could occur without a character ever coming into view.

This, though, is where I ran into a wall. Yes, a volcano can erupt if there’s no-one around to see it, as could that spell – but then where’s the plot? Is there any, without characters? It’s what those characters do in response – how they escape the volcano, or negate the spell, or fall in love in the process – that really builds a story. Without them, you have instead a piece of natural history writing, or geology, or similar – even a historical treatise on that spell would likely mention the individual who created it.

In the end, then, the old maxim holds true, at least in every example I can think of. You simply can’t have a plot – a story – without characters and their choices. It’s no wonder, then, that in my recent work I’ve discovered I just can’t make progress if I don’t have defined characters before I begin – because, without them, there’s simply nothing to write about.

On a final note, a challenge: if you really can think of a plot without characters, please let me know! I haven’t managed to think of one yet, but I’m willing to bet they’re out there, and have just eluded me so far.

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2 Comments
  1. 1 October, 2012 1:15 pm

    Hm. According to your logic it may be more accurate to say, perhaps, that character = plot? I agree that in SF&F you can’t have plot without characters, but I can think of a few lacking in characterization, so that’s where the distinction might come up.

    • 22 October, 2012 10:35 am

      Hi Seilann, sorry for the late reply. I suppose I was separating character from characterisation, really – as you say, a plot needs characters to function, but there are plenty of novels (in all genres) where the characterisation is done badly. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean that the plot is uninteresting, simply that it wouldn’t exist at all without characters, good or otherwise, to move it along!

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