Character .v. Plot: The Dragon or The Dragon-Killer?

I am about to write the 75,000th word of the third novel in the Wycaan Master series. I have probably written over a quarter of a million words and I am not sure where the story is taking me, but it feels that I might yet walk in the path of Christopher Paolini and write a four book trilogy – if I do, I will have to man up and eat the words with which I taunted him for doing this.

But it is not about words. Anyone can put a lot of words on paper (or in a series of word documents). The art is keeping the readers as engaged at word 250,000 as they were at 5,000 and 95,000 (the beginning and end of the first book).

There is a lot of material on the net about plot .v. character. The tide seems to change every few years. A book must be plot-driven. A story must have rich characters. It is what might happen next that keeps us page turning after midnight. It is the characters who continue with us after we finish a book.

Of course, it is both. If the plot is not strong, we lose interest. If we cannot root for the characters, we disengage.

In the eight books I have written, the best ones seem to control their own plot. They steer themselves through me and onto the screen. I trust in the system and let them do this. Those that I felt a need to force a plot seem in retrospect…well somewhat forced.

It is the characters that seem to drive me on. I really do care about them and I can see myself hanging around to see how they develop. This week, I reintroduced a character (in book 3) who disappeared in the previous book. I don’t really need her, but I miss her. I’m not sure why, but it is more than the need for strong female characters.

In the survey that many of you filled out for me (Defining My Target Audience), characters figured highly. I wonder whether this is specific to our genre but I don’t think it is.

Humans crave relationships, even those who wile away the dark hours opposite a computer screen and make up stories. In fact, we writers thrive on the relationships we cultivate with our characters.

This is not a question of plot .v. character, but a question of emphasis. I will continue to develop my characters to keep them growing and loyal to their audience. If they slay a few figurative dragons along the way, then all the better.

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A huge thank you to those who filled out the survey. I have learned so much from it. I didn’t realize how much work it would be to correlate the results but I am aware that I owe you the answers.

I will get to this, but I need to carve out the time. Tomorrow, my son, who together gave birth to the first book of the Wycaan series, will be bar mitzvahed. This is a huge rite-of-passage, coming-of-age quest in its own epic proportions. It has, however, drawn time from my writing. I will continue to seek more answers to the survey and hopefully publicize the results later in the summer. I haven’t forgotten. And thank you, once again, for filling out the survey.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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3 comments on “Character .v. Plot: The Dragon or The Dragon-Killer?

  1. rgcalkins says:

    Great post! I agree completely. I love my characters and they move the plot just fine on their own without my meddling.

  2. ellisnelson says:

    I agree that the plot keeps us engaged and the characters remain when we close the book. But different kinds of books require different things and are expectations are different. If I choose a light beach read book or a thriller, I expect different things. The first will be allowed to meander more and but the thriller has to grab and hold me (by the throat preferably) until the end. So a lot depends on genre and the expectations the reader imposes. That’s why (and I understand) you want to know and connect with your audience better.

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