Friday, 14 October 2011

Plot Junkie or Characterphile?

Plot Junkies and Characterphiles

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said...Plot is character and character is plot...and I’ve always believed that to be true. I tell students that if they can create a living, breathing character, that character will show them where the story should go. But I also believe in careful plottingin always having a flexible way forward. I think this is especially important for a novel, but it’s also the reason many writers never get to the end of most of the short stories they conceive; they may have a character, but that character has nowhere to go.

Do you control Character....
I’ve talked to so many writers on this subject, and I’ve come to the conclusion that  most of us are unevenly balanced, when it comes to character and plot.

Some writers create characters easily. Before anything else comes to their minds, a person walks into it, often fully formed. They get to know them before they start to think what their story might be...except of course, that the character is likely to tell the writer what their story is. J K Rowling famously said the Harry Potter arrived in her mind during a train journey. If he introduced himself as a boy wizard about to go to a magical school, you can see how the story might immediately start to take shape. These writers  are character-driven, allowing the character to drive the story and create the events within it, always generating events that event affect the character.  I call them Characterphiles – they can’t help but start with character.

Some writers (myself among them) start with an idea, a concept, a theme, the twist at the end of the
...before Plot?
story, or the way the design of a story within cause and effect. P G James tells us that she almost always starts a story with a setting; she sees a landscape or building that affects her. The story grows from the setting, and the character slot into it seamlessly...when they’re ready for them.  
Plot-driven. Stories in which the driving force is subject matter, often encompassing a concept or theme, or locations and scenes. When the idea for a story starts like this, the characters have to be ‘fitted’ into the story, rather than steering it themselves. I call writers who cannot help but see the ideas, themes and plotlines first, plot junkies.

So although I recommend to my students that it’s best to summon up the characters first and let them build up the plot by the conflicts they create as they grow, so that the characters show the writer how the action works, this simply cannot work for plot junkies. And although I do recommend this, it’s often the reason so many stories fall into the mass grave for unfinished fiction.

There are advocates of both character and plot driven stories – published writers who allow characters to lead them where the characters want them to go, and published writers who always start with the idea, sort out the plot first, and only allow the characters a look-in once that is all settled in black and white in their notepad or file.

The ‘characterphiles’ shudder in horror at the idea of squeezing a character into a role, suggesting that readers love the people that inhabit fiction above all other things, and what they really want to know about is how those people tick – what happens to them in the story is almost secondary and mostly useful in that it illustrates and represents this particular person’s journey through their life (and through the pages). ‘Plot junkies’ would argue that the easiest way to give interesting characters sufficient ‘cause and effect’ to generate strong drama is to explore an idea first and foremost, using invented people to do so.

Good examples of this are a couple of writers of ‘crossover’ fiction (for teens and adults alike). Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is based on specific ideas that he wanted to explore – he does, however create extremely interesting characters to do the exploring, but critics have passed judgment on his books for being ‘idea-centric’. Sonya Hartnett, an Australia writer, on the other hand, clearly allows her characters to make up and star in their own stories, and her novels can meander in a slightly vague way because of this. Both are loved, but I’m not sure if both are loved by the same reading public.

 However, there is a ‘middle way’, especially useful for students who are still attempting to become published writers. I recommend this as a compromise. In this writing structure, the writer is simply always aware of what is happening as they commence a new story, always asking themselves…is this story plot-led? Is this story character-based? Whichever the answer to that question, it is on the other side of things that the writer focuses attention, working hard to make sure they concentrate on the weaker side in at least equal measure to the stronger.

Charles Dickens was clearly a characterphile; his characters have lived in reader’s imaginations for almost two centuries. His friend and peer, Wilkie Collins, must have been a plot junkie. After all, he almost invented crime fiction, and his plots are involved and complex, with amazing twists at the end.  Apparently, the two friends constantly helped each other’s writing; Collins suggesting better plot devices to Dickens, and Dickens helping Collins to enrich his characterization.

Do you know which you are? A plot junkie or a characterphile? Maybe you too can find a writer who is on the opposite side of the scale, so you can help each other.

Failing this, be sure to bolster the weaknesses of your tendency, while working to its strengths.

Characterphiles should put time aside to work on the plot, using whatever methods they find most useful, such as brainstorming and ‘what if’, plus index cards, ‘timelines’, and other plotting techniques (see below). They should also tap their writer’s imaginations to discover how their character can find opposition, face drama, be blighted by conflict and face up to causality.

Plot junkies should put equal time aside to really get to know their characters. This can be done by allowing the character to invade your brain, becoming more real, and by using exercises that reinforce characterization, such as character diaries, character profiles and character histories.

Once you know which sort of writer you are, you can try one of the exercises to your left.


  1. I think I'm a plot junkie but I try to bring my characters alive by doing freewrites about them, about what they look like, what things they like, hate, their fears etc, that way I get to know them better.

  2. Hello Nina, what an interesting post, and I think you capture the essential thrust of most writing, especially in relation to popular fiction.

    But I do think think there is a third way - writing that is driven by neither character or plot - and the best word I can use to describe it is' notion'. That's quite similar to your concept of 'idea' except it doesn't develop into plot in the conventional sense. For example, Raymond Carver's short stories seem to me to about an uneasy tension more than any traditional idea of characterisation and certainly not plot. Jean Rhys's novels set in Paris seem to me to be of a similar vien. And they are both gut wrenchingly brilliant.

    I have no idea if there's any real validity in what I'm arguing here; all I can say is that I never think about characters and I avoid plot like the proverbial plague. But you may be absolutely right and deep down I'm sub consciously developing one or the other.

    Many thanks for really making me think; great post.

  3. That is a really good point, Mark. I was actually including the idea of 'notion' within the broad band of plot junkies, as I was going for the idea that once you have your notion you are going to think more towards the way the story would work, but by including Carver's and Rhy's works, you're changing my mind; they are very character based in their structures.
    Interesting! And not cut and dried at all!