Character and plot in a piece of fiction are inseparable. So if you are planning to write a novel you will need to find not only a plot but also the sort of characters that will suit that plot.
So what exactly is a plot? In simple words a plot (or storyline) is a literary term which outlines the series of events that constitutes a particular story. But that is by no means the full story. A plot is far more than merely a starting point and a logical conclusion. If that was all it involved it would be very boring.
Perhaps a fuller description is: a sequence of events determined by the actions and reactions of the characters; these actions and reactions create a chain of causes and effects; and how these events and the various characters relate to one another.
Right, so that sounds fine. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each element of a plot must come from something in an earlier part of the story. So you need to create sufficient dramatic impetus to carry readers through to the end of the story by creating a series of mini-climaxes that builds up to the main climax. Or, in other words, you get your hero into trouble and keep him there until the resolution in the final chapter.
A plot pulls together all the characters, settings and voice with a major dramatic and pressing question. This question is usually fairly straightforward and is answered by the end of the story.
Consider the character and plot in the following novels and see what questions the reader wants answered:
• In Pride and Prejudice, the question posed by Jane Austen is whether the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet will accept the proud Mr Darcy
• The question in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is whether Robert Jordan will escape his apparent fate by surviving his military mission in the Spanish Civil war
• In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s dark novel of revenge, the reader wonders if Heathcliff will ever find inner peace after the death of his beloved Catherine
• In J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye we wonder if the adolescent Holden Caulfield will ever grow up and find his true identity
• In Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd the question is whether Gabriel Oak will finally win his true love, Bathsheba
• In Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands will Davies and Carruthers get to the bottom of the Kaiser’s plot to invade Britain and thwart the intrigues of the renegade former English naval officer?
Look at any well-written novel and you will see that the main reason we keep reading is because of the suspense the major dramatic question creates. We can’t wait to find out the answer. This is called the denouement, the part where all is revealed.
But let’s leave the plot for the moment, although we agree that character and plot are intertwined, and move on to characterisation.
In fictional narrative writing the literary element known as characterisation deals with the art of creating characters. Characterisation may be portrayed by means of a description of the characters as well as through their actions, speech, thoughts and interaction with other characters.
Characters lead the readers through the story, helping them understand plots and themes. Characterisation allows the reader to empathise with the protagonist and the secondary characters by bringing them to life. Dialogue is a very important part of characterisation because it allows the reader to gain a better insight into their thought processes. It also helps to move the story along.
‘Character’ includes moral qualities and ethical standards or principles – or lack thereof – and is a combination of all the features and traits that form a particular character’s nature or personality.Writers make use of different types of characters to fulfil the different roles in the story.
Here are examples of how character and plot go together:
• Characters are described as either dynamic (those who undergo a developmental change in the story) or static (those who remain the same).
• Dynamic and static characters must not be confused with flat (two-dimensional) or round (complex personality) characters.
• Major (or central) characters are essential in that the plot revolves around them.
• Minor characters complement the major characters and help move events forward.
• The protagonist is the central person in a story. He/she need not necessarily have admirable qualities (e.g. an anti-hero).
• A character who represents a particular class or group of people is known as a type. Allied to this is the stereotypical stock character. Literature is full of them: the wicked schemer Iago in Othello; the miser Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; or even the absent-minded genius Professor Calculus in the Tintin comic series.
Note that the above characteristics are not necessarily mutually exclusive and many of them may be combined at the same time.
To sum up, it doesn’t matter how good your plot is if your characterisation is poor. So make sure character and plot fit together like a hand in a glove.