Characters versus Plot

Writing is among other things a balancing act, a lot like juggling, trying to keep many different balls in the air and make it look graceful. Two of the key balls to balance are the characters and the plot. Without compelling characters and/or a good plot, only your closest friends will be able to get through what you’ve written. If you have at least one of them, maybe some strangers will be able to digest it too. If you have both, you’re lucky! Many blog posts and writing books have devoted time to these aspects of writing, so this will not be a how-to. What I would like to consider in this post is which of these two is more important, which one you should pay more attention to, and why it’s wrong to have them in opposition or out of sync with one another. I was watching a popular TV show the other day, and was taken out of the story-world when two characters, who normally are a little too competent, managed to get themselves kidnapped. Even though they cleverly managed to get out of the situation in the end, it brought home to me the importance, especially in long-running TV-shows or book series, for a writer to stay true and consistent in how they portray their characters. Not only will the audience (in this case me) call writers out and feel betrayed if characters behave out of line, but more importantly it disrupts people’s enjoyment. I can see why writers might sometimes might be tempted to make a character do something for the sake of moving the plot along, but if that action isn’t right for the character then it will actually hurt the story they are trying so foolishly to save! On the other side of the coin, characters who do whatever they want can also be detrimental to the reading/watching experience. Yes, if they run rampant they can be highly amusing, but unlike in real life they also have to make sense. While a real life person may decide to just stay at home instead of going out to save the day, or do something irrational just because, characters are bound by a story that needs to keep moving. Nobody wants to change, but it would be very dull if characters kept themselves out of danger and remained the exact same person from start to finish. Good stories transform the character, and the reader/viewer with it. It is the job of the plot to allow characters to grow, and the job of the characters to move along with the plot and bring it to life. Of course whether you value characters or plot more is highly subjective, and there have been great novels on either side of the fence. The key is to do both justice, even if the focus is on one over the other. But the questions remains, which of these elements can cause the biggest problems? We are humans, leading emotional, messy lives, so I would argue that any character that isn’t true to itself just for the sake of furthering the plot causes a bigger backlash than a plot that is slowed down by a character, just like in real life we can understand if a friend doesn’t want to go out sometimes, but are worried when they act “out of character”, by suddenly shaving their head or being loud when they’re normally quiet. Of course we need a good plot and interesting characters to get invested in the first place, but once we’re in, we’ll allow the writer to take us anywhere, as long as it makes sense. Does that make sense? What do you think?

Edit: I came across this post about the recent controversy in Game of Thrones and why the whole story-line doesn’t make sense for any of the characters involved [spoilers, obviously], and think it’s a perfect example of why writers should never make the story they want to tell more important than the characters they use to tell it, basically because when things make no sense, people stop watching/reading/believing and become quite vocally pissed off.