Plot versus Character: is this binary holding writers back?

Plot versus Character: is this binary holding writers back?

The problem with binaries.

Humans tend to think in binaries. This is something I’ve observed so I don’t know if it’s inherent in our brains or is something we’re taught. Problem is the world isn’t binary.

Something is either right or wrong. That’s a binary. Except what is obviously the right choice for someone may be the wrong choice for someone else. Choosing a tofu burger over a bacon bbq cheese burger might be the right choice for someone who cares about animal rights, but the wrong choice for the person with a soy allergy. There’s also often more than one choice in any given situation—and if choosing the wrong thing is what sets you on the path to gaining the knowledge or awareness to achieve a better outcome, was that wrong really so bad? Good and bad—another binary.

Male or female—that’s a once-accepted binary that is now recognised as a lot more complicated and based on largely constructed gender norms. Black or white—well, there are a heck of a lot of shades of grey in the world (at least fifty, so I’m told). But even though our experience of the world is complex and nuance, our brains tend to default to binary choices.

Enter plot and character.

Writers tend to see themselves as plotters or pantsers (and that rare hybrid, the plantser). In the same way, they tend to define themselves as writing plot driven stories or character driven stories, as if characters don’t drive plots and plots require characters to have any meaning whatsoever. This division is purely theoretical and hinders writers more than it helps them. Rather than choosing allegiance to character or plot, writers would be better served by aligning their characters and their plot from the very start of their writing process.

By the way, for the purposes of this article, character is going to mean both the beings who people your story and the journey they go on, and plot encompasses not only what choices those characters make but the structure of the story. And story is the sum of all of the above.

Disclaimer: I am not saying that every writer needs to plot before they write. If you are a discovery writer or pantser who thrives on the excitement of finding out what happens as your characters do, embrace that! Not only does it obviously work for you, but plotting would kill what makes writing fun for you. It makes much more sense for you to write your story and then use this as a tool for editing, or to get you through any sticking points—just as a way to make sure that all the elements of your story are in alignment.

On the flip side, if the idea of putting pen to paper with no idea of what is going to happen next freaks you out, then having a robust plot or story notes to work from may be exactly what you need. I am someone who craves certainty but also a measure of excitement, so I plot with the hope that my characters will come up with a better scenario along the way and expect that I will diverge from my plot during the writing process.


In addition to giving anxious writers like myself certainty, there is a really good argument for having a robust plot: plot is tied to story structure and structure is a crucial element of story. The beginning where we meet the cast, get a grasp of the setting and an inkling of the conflict that will drive the rest of the story. The end where we see characters tested, the conflict laid to rest (for now at least) and the story resolves in a satisfying way. And the middle, which sees our characters evolve through facing an ever increasing series of challenges.

It’s a little more complicated that this, but the point I want to make is that readers crave structure. To get properly invested in a story, a reader must feel certain the story is going somewhere. It’s the same reason we don’t line up for a bus that has a ‘Not in Service’ sign on it. We don’t get aboard a story until we’re certain that it’s taking us somewhere worthwhile. The destination will depend on your genre—in romance, this is a happy ever after or happy for now ending, emotionally resonate and satisfying. In a mystery, it is the neat solution and punishment dispersed and the world settling back into its regular patterns, order restored in an emotionally resonate and satisfying way. In fantasy it is generally the triumph of good over evil—gosh, back to binaries again.


The structural aspect of plot also gives us pacing. This is another crucial ingredient of page-turning fiction. Pacing stops the story from getting bogged down with too much introspection and wishy-washy decision-making, by introducing stakes and forcing the characters to make choices which propel the story forward. But for those choices to matter they must resonate with the reader—and that is where the character is so important to the heart of the story.


Characters make the choices—and for the stakes to matter then those choices and stakes must strike at the characters fears and dreams. The fastest way to alienate readers is to have characters make nonsensical decisions (also known as being ‘too stupid to live’) or behave out of character. Instead, it’s worth while spending time before you start writing (or before you start editing) digging into your main characters and really figuring out what makes them tick.

You need to know what they want and why that is different from what they need. What lie or flaw is keeping them from becoming all they could potentially be? How did they acquire this belief? What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to them (and how are you going to ensure that it does happen to them?)

And that leads us to a binary of a different sort: the chicken and the egg. What comes first? Do you start with your plot—or your characters?

Find your process

The starting point is different for every individual author—and in my personal experience, every single story I’ve written. Sometimes the character jumps into my mind fully formed and the story grows around them. Sometimes I have a question I really want to explore or a topic that is close to my heart. Sometimes it’s a trope I love or one I want to turn on its head. Sometimes I’m sitting down to write a sequel to an already book with the characters already fully-fleshed and with some measure of evolution already under their belts. Where you start will depend on you.

Don’t mess with your existing process too much. Discovery writers/pantsers, you may find it more helpful to do this in the editing stages of your writing. For plotters and plantsers, I have shared a few methods for making sure that character is baked into your plotting methods in the following presentation on character driven plotting.

The writer's best tool: your instinct

Even when plotting, trust your gut to guide you. Human knowledge of story is intuitive, wired directly into our brains. A lot of understanding of story is implicit. We know without knowing that we know.

Case in point, you’ve had a bad day with a series of unlucky events combining to make you late for work. You arrive at the office to some gentle teasing from your colleagues. “Where’ve you been? Alarm didn’t go off?”

You roll your eyes. “If only!” You start reciting the litany of events. “I’m curled up in bed, my alarm goes off. It’s 5:55 am… No problem, I think. So I close my eyes for a few more seconds…” You talk them through your decision and the following consequences. “Next thing I know, it’s 6:49! So I rush out of bed, tripping over the dog—” Instinctively you raise the importance of succeeding events, even exaggerating them to ensure that tension builds as you approach the climax. Then you deliver the kicker: “So I pulled into the carpark, just in time—only to realise I’d gone to the old premises!”

A start, complete with a location and inherent tension: a comfortable bed, the inexorable march of time. A protagonist: you. A goal: to get to work on time. An escalating series of challenges and a satisfying resolution—at least for those listening to the story! Structure is such a crucial part of telling a story, we don’t even think twice about it. We just know when it is there and working and when it is missing or not doing its job.


Some writers find it helpful to be able to look at story structure to see where their story is lacking support or needs some bolstering. Beat sheets and breaking your story into acts is a great way to do this. Plot embryos are another. I’ve got my own idiosyncratic combination of all the above, cobbled together through trial and error of what works for my writing brain—and even then, I still find myself tossing out chapters and starting again.

Don’t stress it! Just as plot and character is a false dichotomy, so is pantsing and plotting. Trust yourself, trust your story, and do what feels right.

So, what do we do with this knowledge?

At the risk of getting repetitive, I suggest spending some quality time getting to know your character before even putting fingers to keyboard. I like to take a bath, or sit down with a cup of tea and a sketchbook, somewhere I have to make an effort to get to my phone or my laptop, and just let myself think. What sort of world does this story take place in? What are possible themes? Conflicts?

My goal is to get to know the character, their fears and their desires. To get a sense of how they acquired these fears and how they might be overcome. What dynamics they have with other characters. Imagine them in various scenarios, and then, having planted the seeds of story, go about my day. Washing dishes or going for a walk, folding laundry or baking—tasks like these provide the ideal conditions for a story to ferment. And then, when you’re not expecting it, the story will speak to you. 

Conscious plotting might be a useful scaffold for the idea to grow, or it might choke it and overwhelm it. Feed the idea the way that works best for you, and then, start writing. In my experience, it’s best to write when you are excited and enthusiastic about it rather than waiting until you’ve got it all figured out. Waiting too long has killed my enjoyment of a story and made writing a chore.

Whatever you do, make sure that it is serving you. Try things on, test drive then but trust your gut. Is it helping you or hindering you? Take that knowledge and run with it.

Another thing that might be helpful to keep in mind is that writers evolve. A writer who found it helpful to plot in great detail when they first started writing may need that guidance less as they progress in their journey and a lot of their knowledge of story structure and pacing becomes intuitive. I go through phases where I need to plot in detail followed by times when I throw any sort of a plan out the window and just write. I’m not sure yet whether this is related to my process or a reflection of the particular project I’m working on, but it further illustrates my point: plot and character are not mutually exclusive, or one better than the other. Both are necessary to an emotionally satisfying and resonant story--and whether you’re a pantser, plotter or hybrid, you already know a lot about both.

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