Plot vs Character: Striking a Delicate Balance

Storytelling is one of the most innate human activities: we tell stories to inform, to relate to one another, and to entertain. Even though works of fiction may not recount historical events, they resonate with us because they are based on themes that we encounter in everyday life, such as overcoming hardships, forging friendship, and discovering the strength within us. When we encounter well-written stories like these, they evoke strong emotions, make us feel more connected to our world, and stay with us for years after we read the last page.

You cannot have a story unless you have events that happen and people to which they can happen; that is what makes plot and character the two most compelling elements of all the elements in a story. Sometimes, a writer decides before the story goes beyond the planning stages whether the plot or the characters will lead the story (at the least, they have a good idea which of these elements will take the leading role). Other times, an author may begin writing and let the progression of the story determine whether the plot or the characters will be the primary cause of the action—whether it is more important that the audience knows exactly what is happening, or whether it is more important that we know exactly whom it is happening to.

All writers have their own reasons for favoring one aspect of their story over another. They might find that thinking up situations comes easier to them than curating personalities, or that they have more interesting people in their life to use as inspiration than they do outstanding memories. However, I am partial to thinking that character development should be the most important element in a story. The plot keeps the story moving, but the characters are the ones who move, and in a well-told tale, the audience moves with them through whatever city or fantasy land or predicament they may find themselves in. Also, people want to relate to each other; that’s part of the reason why stories are so popular to begin with. And when we get invested in a story, the characters feel as close to us as the real people in our lives. We advise our friends to walk away from people who cause them excessive grief and don’t contribute anything valuable to their lives; I can say that I’ve closed books before I reached the ending because I felt the same way about the characters. The author may have included some wonderful tension in his or her story, but if I don’t care how the characters escape, or whether they’re reunited with their lost friends, or who turns out to be the murderer, then what’s the point in reading on?

One of the most well-known novels which I would argue is character-driven is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Critics will tell you that the novel’s plot is sparse, but those who understand the importance of character may tell you that plot can be immaterial; the novel persists because Holden Caulfield speaks to such a wide audience. Generations of readers have identified with his struggle of self-doubt, his hatred of “phonies,” and his fear of growing up to become someone he doesn’t like. When we read the novel, we go on his journey through New York with him. As he tries to learn about himself and understand the world, we hope to do the same. No matter what happens to him—even if it seems that nothing happens—we care, and we want to see it happen.

Nina Palattella