The relationship of plot to character

In discussing the editing of fiction, we’re trying to make explicit what narrative competence is—that is, what makes a story a good story. At the most basic is the plot. And plot, at its most basic, is simply the story of change. There is an initial situation, some sort of challenge or reversal to that situation, and a resolution that restores the initial situation, transforms the initial situation, or synthesizes the initial situation.

We might say that “what happens” is the plot and everything else is a means of portraying what takes place.

So plot is an essential building block of story, maybe the essential building block of story, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A meteor falling to earth is not a story.

A meteor falling to earth and landing on someone’s head is a story. That’s because the plot happened to someone—a character.

In the most simplistic terms, a character has to want something. (The character’s story goal.) Their efforts to get that something constitute the plot. Put like that, you can see how you can’t have plot without character or character without plot. Likewise, you can see how a problem with one will create a problem with the other.

Readers should be able to understand early on what the story goal is (rescue the princess, find the lost city, wreak vengeance on the oppressors). That way readers can follow along with the twists and turns. They’ll know when they should cheer and when they should despair. They’ll also know how they should feel about the resolution (whether the character achieves the goal; the end of the story).

A warning: It’s common for a newer author to have only a vague sense of what a character’s story goal is, with the result that the character wanders around in pursuit of a plot. Often characters seem to be more acted upon than acting, and this rarely leads to a satisfying plot and resolution. Remember how I mentioned the meteor falling on someone’s head? Let’s call that someone Roberta. If after Roberta got hit on the head by the meteor all she did was take an aspirin and lie down, we wouldn’t have much of a story.

For a reader to care about a character, the character has to want something and to try to get it. Even if the reader doesn’t particularly like the character and even if the reader isn’t particularly sympathetic to the goal, the simple fact of the character having one will often be enough to keep the reader engaged with the novel.

Regarding the meteor falling on Roberta’s head. The reason this is, or could be, a story is because we expect the character will do something about what has happened. So while initially the plot can happen to the character (many great stories open this way) the story will only continue to engage readers if the character then does something about what has happened.

So, a character’s story goal is motivated by some event, whether an argument, an epiphany or a meteor falling on their head. But it’s not a story if the protagonist easily reaches their goal. The protagonist must encounter barriers that get in the way. And those challenges create conflict, which is a source of narrative drive – the thing that keeps readers turning pages.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Suppose Roberta is hit by the meteor. In a fit of anger over her now-throbbing headache (motivation), she decides to destroy the meteor (goal). We can see where this will naturally lead to various possible actions.

She might drive to town to buy a pickaxe (a smaller goal that feeds into the larger goal), and in so doing she may meet various challenges that get in her way—obstacles that prevent her from reaching the goal. The local sheriff pulls her over for speeding, for example, and the hardware store is out of stock on pickaxes.

These challenges, which Roberta must overcome to reach her goal, create story conflict: something is getting in the way of Roberta reaching her goal of destroying the meteor. Not the world’s most exciting story conflict, but conflict nonetheless. The interplay between goal, motivation, and conflict (GMC) creates character development and plot.

The story could of course go in another direction. Roberta might have a pickaxe on hand in the garage and the moment she breaks the meteor apart, a thousand tiny space aliens spill out and attack.

Now Roberta’s goal has changed from destroying the meteor to running away from the threat. But we can see that implied in this brief plot description is the idea that eventually someone (possibly Roberta) will have to do something about those pesky space aliens.

Now we have a story goal that is big enough to sustain a full novel. In other words, we can imagine a whole novel about attempting to eliminate space aliens, whereas it is harder to conceive of an entire novel about Roberta trying to find a pickaxe (or at least a novel that anyone would want to read). It could happen, but.

If one aspect of the eternal triangle of GMC is missing or weakly drawn, the whole is less likely to work well. If Roberta is running for her life but we don’t know why, we’ll stick with her for a page or two but eventually we’ll wander off to see what’s on Netflix. Or if she spends three chapters buying a pickaxe but nothing gets in her way (there’s no conflict), we’ll lose interest.

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