Plot and Character are equally tied together in creating a great novel. Neither one is superior to the other, while the Point of View, although perhaps not quite as important, is integral to both informing the reader about the characters, whether first or third person, as well as in its ability to advance the plot, which determines what the characters will or will not know about events and may or may not allow the reader to know more than the characters so the reader can often guess or have foreshadowing of where the plot is going.
Second rate authors of fiction usually make one of two errors:
- They write a book about a character that wanders all over the place and may be entertaining but the reader is left continually wondering “Where is this going?” Such writers tend to be writers, but not novelists.
- They write a plot-driven novel in which the characters lack development, and consequently, we can all guess what is going to happen. Terry Brooks, author of The Sword of Shannara, is one such author, and this fault tends to be more common among writers of “formulaic” novels, especially fantasy and science fiction, as well as crime and thriller type stories, although of course there are plenty of exceptions.
What separates a good author, a true novelist, from a mediocre author is the ability to intertwine the character and the plot so that they are necessary components of one another. The character should be the basis of the plot. What happens should most of the time be the result of the character’s actions and the choices he or she makes. Yes, the character may have to deal with something unexpected—an earthquake, the death of a friend, being kidnapped, etc. but the character always has a choice and must then act to advance the plot.
A good novel will let the reader know right away what is at stake for the main character, usually in the first chapter, if not on the first page. By at stake, I mean, what motivates him or her. His or her motivation is paramount to the plot and nothing else matters besides it. We do not need or want to start with the character’s birth and go forward to death or marriage or whatever, but we start in the middle of the story or the immediate critical moment so we find out what is at stake immediately; that way when incidents from the character’s past or present are introduced to develop that character, the reader knows why those details are important in terms of the bigger plot. We want to start in the middle of the action with what is at stake for the character, and knowing what is at stake is what will immediately hook the reader. And it will cause the reader to ask all kinds of questions.
For example, an excellent opening line to a novel that lets us know what is at stake is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Immediately we want to know who the single man is, what is his fortune, and where will he find a wife.
Austen doesn’t give us the history of the Bennet family and how they have five daughters and the estate is entailed and there’s no money so the girls need to be married off to good husbands. She doesn’t start with how Mr. and Mrs. Bennet first met and decided to marry and then take us through the girlhood incidents of all their daughters. She starts with the five girls of age to be married and gets on with the marrying. Following that opening line, we are given just a few short paragraphs in dialogue that immediately makes us realize who our main characters are to be and what are their motives and answers many of the questions we have.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? how can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
A good novelist will also do more than create a plot and characters. Not only will he tell a story, but he will offer a worldview. That is not to say he will be preachy or tell the reader what to think about the characters, the events, or life in general, but it means that he is the guiding force behind the book, the Creator, who determines whether his characters live in a benevolent, hostile, or chaotic universe. He creates a world that is bigger than the plot and characters and makes the reader aware that there are people and events going on in the novel that are not perhaps integral to the main characters and plot but that adds a third dimension to the story so it feels like the story takes place in a real world, whether the real world the reader lives in, or a real, yet fictional world. E.M. Forster summarized this idea well when he said:
“Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out.”
When the novel ends, we must be left feeling life will continue in that world.
The importance of character and plot being intertwined can also be seen in E.M. Forster’s definition of a story. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster states,
‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.”
P.D. James, the modern-day mystery novelist, in quoting this passage from E.M. Forster adds, in writing mystery plots, “To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.”
For me, personally, the plot should be what is at stake for the main character. What is at stake could be many things:
- The need to find a spouse.
- The need to find an income.
- The need to save one’s life—from the Nazis, from the good guys after one has committed a murder, from starvation, from being lost in the wilderness, etc.
And personally, I feel that need to have something at stake needs to be emotional and stressful. It amazes me how many novelists overlook the emotional aspects of their plot on their characters, especially in a lot of escapist literature. There are very few human beings who can dodge bullets and not be afraid. There are few who can be placed in an unhappy situation and not feel grief, not cry, not feel stress or have a panic attack, etc. The emotional feeling is integral to the character and plot. It develops the character, making the reader identify with him or her, and it is in the depths of the character’s agony that the plot advances. Change is stressful for people, and people often will not change until they find that the stress of not changing outweighs the stress of changing. Therefore, something must happen that causes the character stress, despair, grief, pain that motivates his or her actions. Few people are good enough or wise enough to change or take action without a prodding, either of something bad happening, or their having the foresight to see that something bad will happen if they don’t take action. For example, a family will not leave their land until it is hopeless. In The Grapes of Wrath, it is the destitution of the loss of their unfarmable land that causes the Joad family to travel to California. At stake for them is a way to survive, to make a living, to find food to fill their bellies, and also at stake is the need to keep the family together. The characters’ actions all revolve around this being at stake.
The plot must move forward based on the character’s actions, and a good novelist will develop the character and plot so that in the end, the character will be forced to take action which moves the plot forward toward resolution. That doesn’t mean that the universe or benevolent forces or some coincidence cannot arise to help the characters. The Joads might find a kind landowner who lets them work on his property, but they have to make the decision to stay there, and there is still something at stake for them, such as them not all being able to work there, which requires splitting up the family.
The main thing is there can be no deus ex machina – no sudden unknown relative who dies and leaves the main character a fortune to solve all his problems, no sudden angel from heaven descended to slay the bad guy, etc. The resolution has to come as the result of the main characters’ struggles and making the right decisions that bring about the ending, whether it be happy or sad.
It is this decision which leads to or is the CLIMAX.
Plotting a novel requires that everything lead up to this climax. If something isn’t relevant to the climax, if it doesn’t advance the plot toward the climax, then leave it out. No matter what kind of fiction you’re writing, you’re always writing a mystery novel so the reader is asking, “Where is this going? How will it turn out?” And you have to drop clues throughout the book so the conclusion ultimately is logical. The mistake many novelists make is they fall in love with their characters and consequently wander all over telling their stories, trying to be funny, or interesting, or mysterious, but these are like red herrings to the reader without purpose because they don’t lead to the climax. Instead, plot from the end and work forward so your plot stays tight.
In writing a book, you need to know where you’re going before you get there, just like you wouldn’t go on a trip without knowing you’re headed for San Francisco. If you want to drive from Marquette to San Francisco, you wouldn’t stop in Florida, so don’t take your reader to Florida. Take him to Wisconsin, then Minnesota, South Dakota and so on, no scenic tours to Illinois or Iowa, even though they are close to being along the way, but not a straight line as the bird flies. It might be okay in a mystery novel to take some detours to keep the reader guessing, or in a romance novel to create a counter romantic interest to test the two main lovers, but for the most part, head steadfastly to your destination, the climax. If it were a road trip, that climax might be the blizzard the characters encounter driving through the Rockies, followed by the relief of the falling action as they leave behind the mountains and drive through California, before arriving at the final destination of San Francisco.
And if you create engaging characters for traveling companions, your readers will be willing to follow you on the journey, no matter how many twists and turns the plot takes.