There is an ongoing debate (although it may only be between me and my proof-readers) about whether plot or character drive a story. Of course, in some ways you can say there is no story without plot. Why does anyone read a book? To find out what happens in it. And what is plot, if not what happens in the book.
But there is more to it than that. In my relatively short writing career, whether it be in my novel or my short stories, the most important thing is not merely what is happening, but who it is happening to and what they’re doing about it..
And this is for (at least) two reasons: First of all characters are who the readers care about. If I’m going to tell a story about a volcano destroying an island, for example, I’m not just going to describe what happened, who got killed and so on. This would make it a documentary.
What I would do is create some characters who have lives, dreams and ambitions, and who see all these things go up in smoke (pun intended) when the volcano goes off. The “what” that happens is the volcano and the resultant destruction, and this is obviously dramatic. But what will keep the reader interested are the people that this is happening to. And these people have to be well-rounded and believable for the reader to be willing to invest him or herself in their fates.
I think the second reason is linked to how well-rounded and believable these characters are. Because, in my story example, not only will I write about the impending destruction that the volcano will wreak, I would also write about what the different characters will do in the face of all this. Will they surrender themselves to their fate? Will they try to escape? Will they panic or be brave?
And their actions will depend on their characters, because the last thing a writer wants is for a reader to say: “Oh no, he would never do THAT!” The characters in a story have to be realistic, and this means they have to behave in a manner that is consistent with their natures. And this is really what drives the story.
Once you create these characters, the volcano is no longer the story, but merely the context for THEIR story. And their story is the real plot. The personalities that a writer has endowed his characters with, their hopes and dreams as well as their darkest secrets, will drive how they act and what they say within the greater context, which is the impending volcano eruption.
If they are truly rounded and realistic, then they are fated to act and say things that are true to themselves. If the writer tries to twist the plot to force them to do things that the reader knows they would never do, the story falls apart and the writer loses all credibility. He either has to write new characters, who will behave in a way that advances the plot the way he wants it to, or he has to change the plot, and let the characters do what they would realistically or naturally do in that situation.
And that is why the characters drive the story.
About the Author:
Gabriel Boutros is married and has two sons. He has lived most of his life in Montreal, the city where he found the two great loves of his life: his wife, Rose, and a little hockey team called the Montreal Canadiens. He says he needs both of them to get through the long, cold Canadian winters. He worked as a criminal lawyer for 24 years and, based on many of the things he has seen and experienced in his career, both good and bad, he wrote his novel, The Guilty.
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