On Characters and Plot

By Michelle Drozdick

I find that finding the right balance when creating a character is far easier said than done. Is it better to create a character first, then build a plot around them? Or should a story be created, and each character grow organically when placed within it? My answer isn’t especially surprising or unorthodox (a little bit of both), but putting this into practice isn’t always simple.

In my painfully early, high school era writing, I fleshed my characters out entirely, far before I had an interesting situation to place them in. The idea of the story itself was almost an afterthought. I ended up with (relatively) solid characters that were wasted in order to further a flimsy plot. Throughout college and briefly afterwards I threw myself into intricately developing a story first and creating characters that existed solely to further the plot of said stories. Unsurprisingly, I ended up with interesting plot ideas with decent potential but boring, bland characters that never felt real and wasted the concept.

It seems as though the solution is simple– putting the same amount of attention and focus into both your plot and your characters. This brings up an entirely new problem. What happens when you’ve carefully developed a character and carefully developed a plot, but the two clash? What happens when you need Character A to be in Location B at Time C, but Character A would be far more likely to be at Location Y with Character T? What do you do when you need a character to react a certain way to further the plot, but it just doesn’t make sense for them as a person to react that way? Do you change the character, or do you change the plot?

I don’t think there’s any one answer, but what I’ve found helps me is flexibility from what I had originally planned. I don’t allow myself to be rigid, even with plot points or scenes I consider essential. Would my character be more likely to go to Location Y? Fine. Let them go there. Let’s see what happens. Sometimes things end up taking an interesting new direction I never would have come up with on my own. Sometimes it ends up being absolute garbage and I have to scrap the whole thing and rewrite. I won’t let a character completely derail a story, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to let them take over a bit. That said, sometimes a character needs to be reigned in, or adjusted as a whole when nothing else can be done. When it comes to characters and plots not everything can be set in stone, and not everything in an outline will make it to a finished product.

Michelle is a co-founder and editor of Babbling of the Irrational and an aspiring writer from NYC. You can interact with Michelle on Twitter, or at mdrozdickboti@gmail.com

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