We’re in the middle of an epic rewatch of The 100, and we’ll probably have some thoughts about that soon, but in the meantime, we’ve been thinking more generally about characters and their relationship to plot.
One of our friends likes to say that the difference between literature and popular fiction is that literature will sacrifice plot for character, whereas popular fiction will sacrifice character for plot. In other words, in literary fiction, character drives plot, while in less exalted types of writing, it’s the other way around.
So when a character does something in a book we’re writing, we try to make sure that it feels natural and true to that character. The action should feel like it’s being spurred along by the characters, doing what these characters would naturally do, rather than a succession of plot points that happen simply because “Hey, it’s on the outline, and this has to happen for the story to move forward.” That always has the potential to feel artificial to the reader.
For example, you can look at what happens to Ginny and Hermione in the last two Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling has since admitted that she forced Harry together with Ginny, and Ron with Hermione simply because that’s how she originally plotted it out. And she stuck with that idea straight to the end, even though it was pretty clear by the end of the fourth book that Hermione and Harry ought to be together. Her admission of that fact a couple years ago was no great surprise to us, since we both thought at the time, when the books were first coming out, that she was clearly straining to create chemistry where none existed. Ginny’s and Hermione’s characters changed—Ginny suddenly became more of a badass, while Hermione became weepier and more useless—in an increasingly desperate attempt to make the plot work out the way Rowling had meant for it to. If she had allowed the characters to do what felt more “natural,” then clearly Hermione and Harry would have ended up married, Ron would have ended up…with basically anyone else (or possibly dead), and Ginny would have remained a background secondary character, where she belonged.
In contrast, think of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. The plot of the novel is driven by the choices she makes, and all of the choices feel completely natural and organic to her character. When she makes fun of poor Miss Bates, she earns a well-deserved scolding from Mr. Knightley, but we as readers can’t honestly say that Emma’s actions were out of character for her. His rebuke stings, and we readers fully understand her mortification, precisely because we know that what she did is the perfect expression and encapsulation of Emma’s flaws—she’s too clever for her own good and a bit of a snob. When you read the passage, you don’t feel as if Austen shoehorned the incident in there simply because she needed a “dark night of the soul” for her heroine. You feel as if Emma did it because, being Emma, she could not have done any differently. It’s exactly the sort of thing, you feel, that someone like Emma would really do.
But it’s not only in classic literature that we find characters driving plot, rather than the other way around. When we were in the car driving home today, discussing ideas for this blog, one of the first examples we thought of was Aramis sleeping with Queen Anne in The Musketeers. Here’s a spoiler for those who haven’t read the Dumas novel; he doesn’t do that in the book. But when it happens on the show, it feels entirely natural and true to Aramis’s character. The first time we meet him, he’s sleeping with Cardinal Richelieu’s mistress. When he and Anne hook up, we viewers don’t think, “Wait, where did this come from all of a sudden?” No, we sigh, roll our eyes, and think, “Yep. There he goes again.” And of course his decision to sleep with the queen changes everything and drives the plot for the second season.
In our own writing, we try to make sure that character drives plot, rather than letting plot drive character—a real danger when you outline obsessively like we do. It’s always tempting to say, “Well, clearly character X has to do Y, because that’s what it says here.” So when we write the outline, we try to ask ourselves whether Y is really what X would do under those circumstances.
This is also why we do our character prompts whenever possible. It helps to get to know a character outside the context of the plot, so you really have a sense of the kind of things he or she would be likely to do. After all, it’s hard to make character drive the plot when you don’t even know who the character is yet.