This is a fun question that comes up a lot: which is more important to the story, the characters or the plot? The obvious answer to this question is: both. This isn’t a case of either-or. We don’t have to pick between characters and plot. Trying to pick one or the other creates a false-dichotomy.
Let’s look at a story with a great characters. People relate to the characters, they feel for the characters and understand them. Perhaps they remind the readers of themselves, or of someone they know. That’s great, and it goes a long way in creating memorable characters. But if the entire story consists of characters who do nothing but sit around watching TV all day, or driving to and from the office, and compiling reports at work, no one will care. Those are things that the average person does every day anyway. No one wants to read about their own life – they want to escape it. So, from this lesson we can see the importance of a great story.
But, let’s flip it around. Maybe I have the most amazing story every written. But perhaps my characters are not well developed. It doesn’t matter what is happening to the story if the characters are unrelatable. Characters are the vehicles by which readers engage in our world. They serve as a form of proxy or avatar; without them, the readers don’t really care what happens. So, characters are also important too.
Admittedly, between these two types of errors, I’ve made the latter. In my first novel, Exodus, my characters changed a lot. In the original draft, Damarien Tierney (the main character) was portrayed as intelligent but aloof. He didn’t worry about making good choices all of the time and was very impulsive. He counted on his wit, intellect, and resourcefulness to get him out of whatever mess he got himself into. Beta Readers hated him. They didn’t like him at all. They felt he was too reactionary, which was technically true. I personally know many people who behave exactly as Damarien did in the first draft. And maybe that’s why they didn’t like him; he reminded them of themselves.
I always look at the feedback that people give me, even if I never respond to it directly. Some of it is encouraging. Some of it is laughable because the person is either uniformed or deliberately trolling. But then there are the helpful critiques – the feedback that you don’t really want to hear, but you must. For example; one person commented that some of the characters in Exodus felt a little flat to the point that they didn’t care what happened to them. My first thought was; Say it ain’t so! But, looking at it objectively, they had a point. It was my first book and I spent so much time focusing on the main characters that I didn’t pay too much attention to the others. That’s a mistake that I’ve taken steps to rectify in all of my future writing.
In future posts I’ll talk about Heroes and Villains specifically, stay tuned! And thanks for reading!