20 July 2020

Plot versus Character

When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


  1. Good advice, Steve. With short stories, it also depends on what/where they're set. Most of mine are in small town Laskin SD, so I have recurring characters who I know very well (and hope my readers have come to know). And occasionally the stories really are all about families, characters, and how those interact, because - well, it's small town drama. Never ends.

  2. A clear, concise way to put it. Hope beginners read this. Big differences between writing a novel and short stories.

  3. Good advice, Steve. I too find myself enjoying writing short stories perhaps because I'm not facing a long slog through that muddle in the middle, etc.

  4. Short stories do require a tight focus, a close interaction between character and plot. More is forgiven with novels.

  5. I agree with everyone above. Good advice, Steve!

  6. Eve, you make a great point about setting.

    In novels, setting is often another character. I can only think of a few stories where this is true (London's To Build A Fire, for one) and while I like to work with a setting, I tell my classes to start with a fairly generic setting (office, golf course, kitchen) just to prevent a lot of description.

    When they can combine plot and character, it's time to layer in more setting.

    And thanks to everyone else for the kind words.

  7. Great insight, Steve. When I wrote my novels, the plot came first and the characters followed. Now that I'm doing short stories, sometimes it's characters first, especially since I collect names from people I meet to Tuckerize them (use them in my writing). For example, I met a woman with three kids: Hazel Moon, Zoey Lynn and Alex Ray, and I just HAD to use those names. That turned into a story about three kids in a Florida swamp who are attacked by a Burmese python (a current BIG problem in the Everglades) and rescued by a Skunk Ape (our version of Bigfoot; NOT named Darryl).

    On the other hand, I had the idea of an insurance company that ONLY insures against Acts of God, and the characters and names came later. One page.

    On the other other hand, sometimes it's just an idea, like "Why are dragonflies called that if they can't spit fire?" And that turned into a little two-pager, with an anagram for the main character's name.

    Whichever starting point I use, I have to admit I have a lot of fun writing each and every one. (Editing is another story.)

  8. Based on your blog today, I read Afternoon Delight, my first time reading your work. I gave it a critical review on Amazon suggesting that if Trash and Jimmy don't snare you up as an avid fan, nothing will. I thoroughly enjoyed the story! And, the story reflects your post today. Thanks for the insights.

  9. Eagle, you just made my whole day. Thank you! :-)

    In the interest of blatant self-promotion, Trash and Byrne are the protagonists of two novels, The Whammer Jammers and Hit Somebody, two novels involving women's roller derby.

    The novella "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" stars my Detroit PI "Woody" Guthrie, and
    another novella, "This Year's Model," features my Hartford PI Zach Barnes. Both PIs have several novels in a series, but these are the only stories I have published online with any of them. There is another story with Trash and Byrne, but it was published recently enough so the rights haven't reverted to me yet. I'll probably publish that next year when the rights come back to me.

    Thank you again for your generous review, too.


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