Plot and characters go together like green eggs and ham; one without the other just isn’t as interesting. Yet a lot of writers consistently have trouble making them work together. Either they’re so focused on their characters that they forget to make the plot work, or they’re so focused on the plot that the characters become little cardboard puppets just going through the motions.
Whichever way the problem runs, the keys to getting out of it are balance, flexibility, and occasionally reminding oneself that what you’re after isn’t green eggs or ham; it’s both together.
Balance means that you don’t spend three weeks twisting and polishing your plot to a high gloss and then you start writing. It means you spend a couple of days thinking about the plot, and then a couple of days thinking about the characters, and then a couple of days thinking about how putting those people into your original plot idea will change it, and then a couple of days thinking about how your people will react and change if your current plot events happen to them, and so on. Back and forth.
Flexibility means that you aren’t wedded to any particular idea – plot or characters – at all times. When you’re developing the story, especially, you have to keep trying out new notions and alternate possibilities even if they completely change everything you thought you were sure of so far.
If you are somebody who likes to talk about your stories in development, this will drive your friends absolutely crazy.
“Wait, I thought the purple mage was the bad guy,” they say.
“Oh, I decided it’d be more interesting if he was spying for the good guys.”
“But then why does he kidnap the heroine’s son?”
“Oh, he doesn’t; he got caught spying and she finds him when she goes to let all the kids out of the dungeon.”
“I decided to make her a school teacher, so instead of one son she has a whole classroom of kids to rescue along with the spy. Or wait, maybe it’d be better if the villain kidnapped her, and the kids have to rescue both of them…wait, no, she’s the spy, and he’s the teacher! Yeah, that’ll work…”
“It’s OK; it’ll make sense after I’ve written it.”
When a writer gets too focused on one thing, be it characters or plot, they tend to forget to think about the interaction between the two, and they end up with something like chocolate-covered-garlic or sour-cream-and-onion ice cream: mixing two things that would be fine on their own, but that really don’t work together very well.
Plot and characters are inextricably intertwined in any effective story. Plot is stuff that happens to the characters because of who they are and what they do, and living through the events of the plot changes the characters (as any life experience changes the person who experiences it). Separating the two is often useful in order to examine and talk about particular aspects of each, but in practice, it’s a lot like trying to separate an egg yolk from the egg white after the egg has been scrambled.
If you have a character who Just Wouldn’t Do That at a critical point in your plot, you have only two choices if you want your story to continue to work: you can jettison the plot, or you can jettison the character. Forcing the character to sneak into the dungeon when he’s more of a let’s-negotiate-a-ransom type isn’t going to work without some kind of change.
This sort of problem generally crops up in mid-book somewhere, and if the writer isn’t paying attention – if she’s focused too narrowly on Following The Plan – she may just steamroller on past it and end up wondering why the story’s gone flat. (This happens to character-centered writers just as often as plot-centered ones; the character-centered ones really, really don’t want to have to come up with a different plot when they sweat blood getting this one done, so they stick to the outline, while the plot-centered ones really, really like the whole rescue-from-the-dungeon sequence and don’t want to change it.)
This is where flexibility and balance and keeping both plot and characters in mind at once come into play. Once you see that the dungeon scene isn’t going to work as planned, you can decide whether you’re going to rewrite the character so he’s more of a jump-in-and-do-it guy and the sneaking becomes plausible, or whether you’re going to rewrite the plot so far so that your negotiator-guy has some really excellent and believable reasons for not negotiating this time, or whether you’re going to throw away your plot from here on out and let him go ahead and negotiate instead of sneaking, and then see what happens.