Of all the issues related to writing fiction, none is more subjective or controversial than the long-standing argument of which is more important, plot or characters. Anyone with even the most limited knowledge of fiction—reader or writer—could build a strong case either way, and there is no absolute right or wrong. As a writer myself, I, of course, have my own opinion; a very strong opinion. Needless to say, any successful, well-written novel must have both a strong plot and fascinating characters. That’s a given. However, I’d like to build a case for characters.
Of all the novels I’ve read throughout my life, those most memorable, locked in my mind forever, are books whose main characters were three dimensional and lifelike. A novel could have a highly compelling plot, but if interesting characters do not support it, the story will likely go flat no matter how complex, and leave the reader disappointed. As a novelist, you’re competing with God and that’s no easy task. To create characters that live and breathe and literally jump off the pages requires a very unique talent.
Not to minimize the importance of plot, it is my strong contention that plots—and please forgive me for saying this—are a dime a dozen. Consider this: if you pick up any major newspaper in the country and skim through its pages, you can find dozens of plot ideas from real-life situations. The husband who has two wives—one on the east coast and one on the west coast. The corrupt politician who accepts a bribe. A national security leak. A conflict in the Middle East. For no particular reason a lunatic walks into a classroom and executes the students. An average Joe rescues a child from a burning building and becomes an overnight hero.
Not only are plots everywhere, but many storylines have a familiar ring. How many times have the two main characters in a romance novel hated each other throughout the book, only to fall in love at the end? How many times has the good guy, the character you least expected, turn into the villain? How many books about lawyers and doctors and superheroes follow the same formula? How many times have you read a classic cat and mouse whodunit mystery with a familiar storyline?
On the flip side, have you ever seen the likes of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, or Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind? Has either character ever been cloned in any other novel? Their uniqueness and originality cannot be easily duplicated. Although the plots for both of these memorable novels were compelling and engaging, it was the main characters that grabbed your attention and kept you turning pages.
The ultimate challenge for all novelists is to write a book with both an original, attention-grabbing plot and fascinating characters. And this is a tall order. But remember this: if you create complex, truly intriguing characters, the story can be a lazy tale about someone building a horse barn and your readers will be totally engaged. We’ll dig deeper into building interesting characters and explore some tricks of the trade in another session.