Plot or Character at the Helm

On April 7, 2010 EquusFerusCaballus, now known as Marmaladeland, wrote, Which is a more important element in a story: character development or plot? If you have good characters, should you go right ahead and bend a story to fit them, or wait until a better one comes along to click? If your plot is excellent, but the characters are as believable as purple unicorn turtles, should you write anyway?

Plot and character are as entwined as ivy on a trellis, and I can’t say which would be ivy and which trellis.  Or the chicken and the egg might be a better analogy.  It doesn’t matter which came first; you can’t have one without the other.  They’re equally important.

Marmaladeland, it is almost always a major no-no to force characters to behave a certain way because of plot.  I say almost because there are no absolutes in fiction writing.  Making a mean character suddenly nice, for instance, just for plot reasons is a good way to get those purple-unicorn-turtle characters.

I’ve probably said before that I’m more plot oriented than character driven.  I start with an idea and then invent characters who will fulfill the idea and go with it naturally.  But if you have characters who interest you and want to follow them, that’s fine too.  Legions of writers work this way, and I wouldn’t call their method bending the story in a bad way.

Suppose you have a main character, Sandra, fifteen years old, the most kindhearted person in the world.  It would wound her to hurt someone, even in the tiniest way, but she worries, with good reason, about being taken advantage of.  Let’s throw in also that she has trouble making decisions and she’s highly emotional, cries easily, laughs easily, angers easily and says things she regrets.

A little of her history: She’s new at Cloverleaf High School, pretty, wears the right clothes, is socially comfortable.  But at her last school her best friend betrayed her, took advantage of her kindness, and she isn’t over it.  What she wants most at the new school is a friend she feels close to and can trust.

Now let’s picture a boy, Drew, also fifteen, short for his age, who gets picked on by other kids, partly for his size and partly because he’s so serious.  He doesn’t fight back or laugh off the attacks, but he hates being ridiculed.  Let’s say he loves music and can play piano, guitar, and drums.

I’ll add one more character, Liza, fifteen too, who is over-friendly.  She flatters people and sometimes puts herself down by way of comparison, as in, “You’re brilliant.  I wish I had half your brains,” or “You have such a fashion sense.  I never know what to put together with what.”  An unrecognized part of Liza’s mind hates the people she flatters and hates herself for having to do it.

Now we have to imagine a situation.  It doesn’t have to be that much of a situation, because this is a character-driven story.  Suppose the three kids are in the drama club, and they’ve been cast in a one-act play together.  Sandra sees Liza as a possible friend, and she’s observed Drew being picked on and wants to help him.

Suppose Liza is the best actor of the three.  She could help the other two, but she can’t put herself forward this way.  Sandra and Drew are astute and find Liza condescending, even though she doesn’t mean to be.

Here’s the prompt:  Imagine a setting where your scene takes place.  Write the first rehearsal, keeping the characters true to themselves.  Continue the story if it interests you.  Don’t decide ahead of time that you do or don’t want Sandra and Liza to wind up as friends and one of them with Drew as a boyfriend, or any other outcome.  Don’t twist anybody to do anything.  If one or more of them changes in the course of the story, make clear how the change came about.

Now for a plot-driven story, the kind I do write.  The clearest example in my books is in my short comic novel, The Princess Test, which is based on “The Princess and the Pea.”  In that book I took the same approach as the one I wrote about last week.  I asked questions and found two major ones: Who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses?  And how is this a test of princessness?

The first question is the big character one. I don’t think anyone could really feel that pea, but there are probably many approaches to a solution.  For example, the princess could have long-distance hearing (this is fantasy) and have overheard the king and queen planning the test.  Or she could be a paranoid princess and tear her chamber apart, hunting for something amiss and finding the pea.

If you remember the story in detail, the successful princess doesn’t have to know she slept on a pea.  She has only to have a bad night’s sleep, so she can simply be an insomniac.  But I didn’t go that way.  I made her not a princess at all.  Lorelei is a supremely good-natured blacksmith’s daughter who’s highly sensitive and allergic to almost everything.  If the mattresses aren’t entirely made of swans’ feathers and the sheets aren’t silk with exactly the right thread count, she is certain to toss and turn till dawn.  And maybe the pea will add to her discomfort.

Then there was the lesser question of how to get her to the castle soaking wet in the middle of the night.  Ordinarily she wouldn’t be outside after dark and certainly not in the rain.  Lorelei’s mother died when Lorelei was fourteen, and the blacksmith had to hire a maid, Trudy, because Lorelei is useless around the cottage.  Trudy hates Lorelei for her general uselessness and plots to lose her in the forest.  Hence the late-night drenching.

Earlier, the prince has met Lorelei when he was out for a ride, and he’s fallen for her and she for him.  As for the king and queen, since this is a very silly tale, they get by just by being silly and adoring their son and wanting the best for him.

The point is, the characters behave according to their natures all the way through, because I’ve chosen those natures for the roles they have to play.  To take a deeper example, in Ella Enchanted, I  made Ella spunky so that she could have a shot at overcoming the curse of obedience.

Here are two plot-based prompts:

•    Three students discover (you make up how) that their popular middle school principal is embezzling part of their school’s state funding.  The money is supposed to be used to build a new library, and he has hired a construction company that will skimp on materials.  The building won’t be safe, but the company and the principal will split the money that will be saved.  Exposing the principal isn’t easy.  They’re just kids, and he’s been principal for fifteen years.  Who are the students?  What qualities do they have that make them able to succeed?  What qualities do they have that trip them up?  Write the story.

•    Going back to fairy tales, seems to me that the characters in “Rumplestiltskin” need work.  The father boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold when she can’t.  The king says he’s going to marry her if she can, execute her if she can’t.  The daughter does little more than wring her hands.  Rumplestiltskin wants the child and then gives the queen an extra chance to keep him.  Who are these characters?  Explain why they behave as they do.  Flesh them out in a story without changing the outcome (unless you decide to).

I loved the discussion that followed the last post.  If you want to share thoughts, please do.  But first write, so you don’t lose the writing energy.  Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Wonderful post! Now I've got a better understanding of the difference between a plot-driven and a character-driven story. It seems that mine is plot-driven. But I love my characters to death, and I'm constantly trying to make their personalities evolve.

    I have a question. I've heard that the first five pages are the most important in a story, since that's the part agents/editors/readers see first. But, of course, that's the part I seem to be having trouble with. I've rewritten my beginning once already, and I think I'm going to have to do it again. My beginning just doesn't seem engaging enough, and I can't think of a good alternative. I need to introduce the setting, characters, and just enough back-story to leave the reader intrigued – but I can't figure out the best way to do it. My writing is fine later on into Chapter 1, but the first five pages are really giving me a hard time.

    Do you have any advice for writing beginnings?

  2. Oh, The Princess Test! That's mine and my friend's favourite story out of them all! And when he proposes to her and hits his knee…haha! I love that bit!!
    And this post is, as ever, very useful.

  3. @Silver the Wanderer

    You should read Gail's Writing Magic. She addresses what you asked there. (I'm specifically remembering the comparison between the opening paragraph describing a lovely nature scene, and the opening paragraph that consisted just of "The bear charged," or something like that.)

    As for this week's post, I'm definitely character driven. The hard work for me in writing is fleshing out "the background" and what's going on around these characters (and what brought them together in the first place). Coming up with the people themselves and their chemistry (friendship, romantic, or enemy-wise) is usually pretty easy for me.

  4. Loved the post! I'm focusing on the characters in my stories mostly right now, so I'll try to remember that plot exists. ;D

    I have a question as well. My brain runs a lot faster than my hands can type (think racecar to horse-and-buggy), and I often change my ideas as I write. I become bored with one idea, get another one, start work on that, and then become bored with the new one. In other words, nothing ever gets done and I have folders overflowing with unfinished work and abandoned stories. I can't remain true to an idea or story for long, and it's so annoying! Is there a way to make myself keep working on a story, and stop losing interest in it?

    @ Silver the Wanderer- I'm pretty sure your question wasn't directed at me, but here's something anyway. 😉 I would try to write your first pages in a time limit (get your brain rushing!), scrap that, try again, and do timed writing until you have a good layout for the beginning. Then you can take your time to write the beginning fully. I don't know if this will help, but it's just a suggestion 🙂

    And, @Gail Carson Levine- I just remembered: I was flipping through the index of Writing Magic a while back and remembered you had mentioned The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw somewhere, so I looked it up. Turns out (and I've checked another copy since, staring intently at the paper to make sure) that "Moorchild, The" in the index was actually typed as "Moonchild, The". I thought you should know, (or your editor, I'm not sure WHO should know…) so if another edition is ever published, it can be fixed.

  5. This was a great post. I am definately character driven. I come up with files full of characters I want to use but I don't have nearly enough plot ideas to fit them all in. Oh well. But this post was just in time again, I have a character driven work-in-progress. I really like the characters I have, but my plot is weak and it has a lot of problems. I guess I'll just let my characters lead it, and see what they do and come up with.
    Thanks again, Ms. Levine!

  6. Thanks for the advise Ms. Levine
    I was wondering if you coulf answer a question I had a couple of months ago. I'm stuck still trying to figure it out. The question was: How do you handle killing a character in your book–espeically one that you've grown to love and are emotionally attached to. Thanks! 🙂

  7. I read a really good reworking of Rumplestiltskin once: "Spinners", by Donna Jo Napoli. I thought that the characters were really believable, and in the end I really felt sorry for Rumplestiltskin! Warning, though, this book is a tad mature, esp. the beginning. Still really good though.

  8. This was really interesting and informative as always! It's really cool to look at both types of writing process, and it will be fun to experiment with them.

    On a funny side note, I absolutely love The Princess Test and remember reading it the first time and thinking "This works so well because it's an exaggeration of how some people actually act." Shortly after, I met a good friend of mine who proved that Lorelei's troubles with being "delicate" are not an exaggeration after all!

  9. Hi
    When creating a 'fantasy' story with your own made up creatures or monsters, how do you create its characteristics without making it sound like a monster already created? Like: a created sea monster that almost all its descriptions makes it sound like the Loch ness monster.

  10. Silver the Wanderer–I'll write a post on beginnings, but it will take a while to get to. In the meanwhile, Alex's suggestion sounds like a good one. And yes, please take a look at WRITING MAGIC. Thank you, April.
    Alex–A similar question about too many ideas has been asked, so I added yours to it. Good catch on MooNchild. Oops! I failed to see it.
    Ezmirelda–Your question is still on my list, about five weeks away, but I WILL get to it.
    F–Thanks for the link. I didn't know fan art existed. I did once look for fan fiction. It was interesting. I don't know how copyright works in fan fiction. Aside from that uncertainty, I'm pleased if my work gets people writing.
    Lizzy–I wouldn't worry about this unless you're copying another writer's description. The Loch Ness monster belongs to everybody, I'm pretty sure.

  11. @April and Gail Carson Levine – WRITING MAGIC is next on my reading list! (Right now, I'm in the middle of Fairies and the Quest for NeverLand, and I'm loving it ^^) I'm looking forward to that chapter on beginnings.

    @Alex – That's a great idea! Thanks! I never would have thought of it myself. And about staying interested in your story, maybe this will help: I love to work out scenes in my head, as if they were a movie. I imagine the dialog, the actions of my characters, even what I'm going to write when I get to that part. I know that some people prefer to write individual scenes and tie them all together later, but I always write in order. Because some of the planned-out-scenes are ones that I'm really excited finally put into words, I feel motivated to plod through the boring parts to get to the fun stuff. I hope this helps a little with your dilemma. 🙂

  12. Lizzy,
    I have several ideas that could help you. You might try not describing the creature in great detail, just say something like "the garthloc slid thru the water." so the readers have some information but a lot is left up to thier imagination. You could drop more little hints everytime the creature appears.

    My brother, (who also writes,) says that the main idea of fantasy as a genre is to give the reader just a peek into a different world. you might try changing traditional creatures a little bit to give them qualities unique to the particular world you are working with. The sorcerors in The Two Princesses of Bamarre are a great example.

    And then of course you could always "steal" creatures from other authers (like the Balrog from Tolkien), but I wouldn't suggest this if you plan to get your story published, becuase I not really famailiar with copyright laws, but you could do some research and see.

    I know this was kind of a long comment but I hope it helps.

  13. This was a great post. It helped me and my friend get an idea for a story for her. We just started listing traits and then qualities and then she thought of background and conflict. Then we got a great storyline from her. We went back and forth listing stuff and then we got it. I got the idea from this post. Thanks! It helped her a lot.

  14. Hello there Gail!

    I'm a book reviewer and I have a blog for young readers. I can't wait to read all your books and I was wondering where I could find an ARC for reviewing if its available for any of them! Or even some bookplates for when I get them 😉 I live in Brazil, but I have a friend in the US tha can send me if the shipping becomes a problem 😉

    Much love and sucess,

    ps: my blog address –


  15. Mandy–My latest book is already out, and the next one won't be released until spring, 2011, so it isn't yet an ARC. You can request one, though, for the future from the publicity department at HarperCollins Children's Books. The title will be A TALE OF TWO CASTLES. I'll be happy to read your response to it.

  16. Yes, exactly what I've been watching out for! Another wonderful post Miss Levine, each time I feel more grateful, for letting us into the secrets of better writing.=D

    My plot and characters are definitely the ivy on the trellis. I think, though, the plot strikes me first, and I create the characters. Now thats wonderful feeling, knowing you can create and control a world in any way you want.=)

    I did the second prompt with Rumplestiltskin, and he turned to be a lot of things I didn't actually plan.=) Thats a great thing about fairy tales, the plot is given to you on a tidy, sparkling plate, so half the work is done.=D

  17. Hello
    I have a few questions to abolish my curiosity …..
    Have you ever thought of making a sequel to Ella Enchanted or do you write most of books 'singular'?
    What is the age group of "A tale of two castles" or most of all you books. (like ages 9-12, 6-8?) Have you even considered writing books for teens, or your fans who love your book but are growing older now.
    Do you think there is a such thing as OVER reading a book. I have read Ella Enchanted and Fairest so many times and it always good every time I read it, but what happens next is never a surprise. I have also seen the movie Ella Enchanted so many times that I have practically memorized the whole script.
    You don't have to answer all of the questions if you don't want to.
    Thank you for your time.

  18. Lizzy–I tend to write stand-alone books, although FAIREST is in the world of ELLA ENCHANTED, and my three Disney Fairy books are in a series. I'm hoping that I can get a series going with the characters in A TALE OF TWO CASTLES, which is for kids eight and up, as most of my books are, although a few work for younger children. EVER is for kids ten and up. If an idea came to me for older teens I might follow it. I used to read books over and over too, and I don't think that's bad. In fact, I think it's good preparation for a writer. On the other hand, I used to wish that I could erase a favorite book from my memory so I could read it again for the first time.

  19. I'm definitely more plot driven, so I looked the second prompt for Rumpelstiltskin.

    It always bothered me that a father would sell his daughter out. So I came up with the idea that what the father meant was that his daughter was such a good spinner, she could take anything and spin it into the softest, thinnest, strongest thread and it would be worth a lot of money. He never dreamed that the king would take what he said literally. The poor girl tried to spin *something* anything, that first night, but with cracked and bleeding hands she finally started crying from exhaustion and despair.

    Now, Rumpelstillskin had all these wonderful talents that he was too greedy to use for anyone but himself. A good witch had had cause to curse him, compelling him to help anyone who cries in true despair. But she allowed him to make a bargain before helping, hoping that it would show him that he had something to gain from helping others. That explains why he would appear and help the miller's daughter spin and why he would then make another bargain when she cried about losing her child.

    So, obviously there is more to go to develop a full story, but this really did give me some insight as to how to develop characters from a plot. Thanks Ms. Levine!

    F: I've never looked at fan art before. (Other than my daughters drew pictures of my book that I just finished. My first fan art!) But I enjoyed the picture you gave a link too. The artist is really good at showing expression.

  20. writer4ever says:

    I’m a fifteen-year-old girl, and I plan to go to college and become an author. At the moment, I’m working on a story with a main character who’s Italian. I’ve never written a bilingual character before, and even though I’ve barely started, I’ve already done about fifteen Google searches to try and make her and her family as accurate as I can. Do you have any tips for writing a character like this?

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