I’ve always been reluctant to write much here about the theory and practice of writing. I always thought, “Who am I to tell people how to write? There are so many people who are so much better out there. People would do better to listen to them.”
Well, I’ve now got a few things out under my own name, and people are actually buying them and saying nice things about them. So maybe I do have something to say on the subject.
A question I have seen from time to time is “which do you develop first: character or plot.” A related question is “which is more important”. Um. Yes?
Here’s the thing, your character dictates the plot and the plot dictates the character. They are inextricably intertwined and have to mesh if the story is going to work.
Consider two of Shakespeare’s plays: Othello, and Hamlet. In the first play, we have Othello, the more, a general in the Venetian army. Direct and forthright–and more than a little hot-headed. In the other we have Hamlet, quiet and studious, tending to look at things from all different angles, and more than a little indecisive.
The events which Othello faces drive him to quick action. The villain of the piece plays on his temper and pushes him to take the direct action that is so natural to him . . . with tragic results.
Hamlet, on the other hand, dithers. He wants to be sure. He carefully examines evidence, tries to evoke further information, slowly builds a case. This very hesitation, however, leads to him making mistakes that drive other the forces to working against him . . . with tragic results.
Consider how things would have worked out had the two characters been switched, had the person facing Hamlet’s situation had Othello’s character and vice versa. Neither story would have been a tragedy. Othello in Hamlet’s situation would hardly have been a story. Othello-Hamlet (OH) hears from the ghost of his father that his uncle killed him and married OH’s mother. OH then goes and confronts Claudius and kills him. End of story. Oh, OH might have ended up executed for regicide, or maybe he and Claudius kill each other. But all the rest of the rather impressive body count for a stage play would still have been alive.
On the other hand, had the person facing Othello’s situation had character similar to Hamlet’s, that story too would not have been a tragedy, although it might have been an interesting story in its own right. Hamlet looks things over from every angle, examines every bit of evidence, sets “traps” to try to unveil what people have done. And slowly, we would see Hamlet-Othello (HO) unveil Iago’s plots, with unfortunate results for manipulative Iago.
One story would be very short and not very interesting. The other longer, and perhaps somewhat more interesting. But neither would likely be great. Neither would be a story hailed as a masterpiece down through the centuries.
What Shakespeare did here was pair the character up with a situation diametrically opposed to that character’s natural inclinations. Hamlet, naturally methodical and contemplative, faced a situation that naturally called for quick action. Othello, the opposite, given to quick action he faced a situation where a more deliberate approach would have been the more successful option.
I do something similar to this in my story “Live to Tell”. In that story, my character’s greatest weakness, his greatest fear, is that of recapture by the Eres, the enemy in the piece. And the question of the story is whether he will rise above that fear or whether it will lead him to a tragic end.
You don’t necessarily need to do this, of course. Perfectly acceptable stories can be told where the plot is the protagonists natural element. In those cases, however, some care has to be made to pit some element that works against the greatest strength. The best Superman stories aren’t those where Superman wades in punching, but where his strength is of limited use, where he has to find some other way to solve the problem or at least to give him an opportunity to bring his strength to bear. Or take Batman. His best villains are either those with an intellect on a par with his own (The Riddler, or The Calculator) where he has to really work to outsmart them, or characters whose “thinking” is so outside the norm that Batman’s intellect and training are of limited use (The Joker). It’s not great surprise that Superman’s greatest villain is one diametrically opposed to him and while Batman’s greatest villian isn’t exactly diametrically opposed, he’s certainly at right angles. And there’s a very good reason that Superman doesn’t generally fight street gangs as a major plot point and Batman does not generally fight Lex Luthor. The plot, and the antagonist, has to be matched to the Protagonist. Character and Plot have to work together. Batman and Luthor are actually quite similar: supergenius intellects with a great deal of wealth and industrial power behind them.
And I had not really meant to get into a discussion of comic book characters when I started this. And perhaps a bit of the focus got lost. But “character or plot” is very much a “chicken and egg” question. You need both, and they need to match.