The Heart of Fiction: Character versus Plot
By Michelle Barker and David Brown
When we come upon a novel that captures us, we turn pages obsessively to find out what happens next. This might seem like an interest in the plot, but that obsession actually stems from a strong connection with the main character. The author has made us care. We’re invested in the outcome. Sometimes we even feel like these are real people we’re reading about. I know that person, we think. Or even—the author is writing about me.
Character is at the heart of all fiction, regardless of the genre. When you’re reading a book and you discover you don’t care what happens in the end, it’s not a failure of plot: it’s a failure of character. The novel is peopled by cardboard or stereotypical figures. They don’t live on the page.
So, how do you give your character a heartbeat?
The Character Questionnaire
These long lists of character questions that exist on the internet are great for fleshing out the details of your character, but they won’t work the magic we’re talking about here. They will only (or mostly) provide external details—her favorite shirt, his preferred nickname, the object they can’t part with. Those are all great, but they’re not what brings a character to life.
The heart of a character is internal conflict, which is woven into external conflict, which is woven into goals and theme and plot. Surprise: it’s all connected. We’ve said many times that a novel should be a house of cards—pull one card, and it all threatens to collapse. Why? Because it functions as a cohesive whole. It has to. When it doesn’t, you’ve got a fractured, anecdotal mess on your hands with characters doing things that don’t make sense or fit with the narrative.
Internal Conflict and a Weird Pair of Glasses
The external conflict in a novel is the plot—it’s what happens from inciting incident to climax. But the protagonist is the engine that drives that plot forward. They act. They act on purpose because they want something. Desperately. For the entire novel, they’re trying to get what they want. Everything in the novel is caused by an attempt to achieve that goal.
However, our most powerful desires are not random. When we want something desperately, there’s a strong why attached to our goal. That why is what makes readers care. It’s what makes the story matter. Without it, it’s just a car chase for no reason.
But here’s the catch. We often want the wrong things. Or we want them for the wrong reasons. And what we want is quite often not what we need.
And it gets even more interesting. The reason we want the wrong things stems from something that happened to us earlier in life—and usually more than once. Whatever this incident was (and it doesn’t have to be big), it cemented a lie about the world and our place in it. Lisa Cron calls it a misbelief. John Truby sees it as an unfulfilled need. Michael Hauge describes it as a mask we display to the world to make us feel safe—a mask that hides a deep wound from the past.
Whatever we want to call it, it is our fatal flaw, and it’s directly connected to fear. From the moment that formative incident occurs, we start to see the world through these weird, distorted glasses. It’s a form of self-preservation. We don’t want to be wounded again. Our entire lives from then on involve 1) realizing that we’re wearing these glasses, and 2) finding a way to take them off.
And just to make things even more confusing: EVERYONE wears their own pair of glasses. Everyone sees the world through their own distorted lenses that make perfect sense to them but no sense to anyone else. And they don’t know it. They don’t realize their entire lives are an attempt to avoid the thing they’re most afraid of. They think the way they see the world and themselves is an accurate portrayal of reality.
And we wonder why people don’t get along.
This is life. It’s the human experience. And it’s at the heart of why characters either come to life on the page or flatline.
The glasses your character wears affect everything: how they see themselves and the world, the choices they make about careers and relationships, and most importantly (for our purposes), their greatest desire and their greatest fear.
They might want the right thing, but they will most certainly want it for the wrong reasons. Or they’ll want the wrong thing entirely. Either way, they believe this specific and tangible thing will make them happy. Spoiler alert: they’re wrong. But the whole process is gold for writers because it means their attempts to get this thing will be disastrous. Even better: they won’t realize this for the bulk of the novel because they’re still wearing those glasses.
You’ve probably heard many times that a protagonist must change over the course of a novel. The whole idea behind wearing the wrong glasses and taking those glasses off builds transformation into the character arc. The character will have to change in order to get what they want—or to realize it’s not what they need.
And when the glasses finally do come off, the protagonist will realize an important truth—either about the world or about themselves. And voilà: there is your theme.
Which Came First, the Character or the Plot?
Because character is what drives a plot forward, we would suggest it’s more important to know your characters first before you start thinking about what they’re going to do. This might be what derails most outlines in the writing process. We plan out what happens and then we throw humanness into the mix and are surprised and dismayed when our characters come to life and take the story in directions we’d never intended it to go. Of course they do. They’re the most important element in the story. They are the story. Their arc is the story arc.
Once you understand the essence of character arc, writing a novel becomes demystified. Critics accuse the process of being formulaic, that it simplifies human behavior too much. We would disagree. It’s like saying three-act structure is formulaic. These are structural forms, yes, but the patterns have been recognized because they exist, not because they’ve been prescribed.
Do they work? Ask Stephen King. Look at Shakespeare. The success of these patterns has been proven countless times in great books. The Darling Axe runs a series on our blog called Story Skeleton that reveals the method behind the magic. Three-act structure and the misbelief character arc show up in one form or another in all of them. It’s not a formula so much as it is a tool for understanding the essential connection between internal and external conflict.
Let’s take Moby Dick as an example:
- Misbelief: revenge can right wrongs.
- Inciting Incident: Ahab loses a boat and a leg while hunting Moby Dick.
- Goal: to get revenge on the white whale.
- Theme or Truth: revenge is fruitless.
- Outcome: Ahab loses another boat, his life, and almost all of his crew.
Or look at The Great Gatsby:
- Misbelief: money can buy both love and respect.
- Inciting Incident: the woman Gatsby loves marries a rich man.
- Goal: to get rich himself in order to win her back.
- Theme or Truth: money can’t buy love or respect.
- Outcome: Gatsby gets rich, but he doesn’t get love or respect.
Do not make the mistake of thinking this will make novel writing easy. It’s never easy. But if you’re working on a novel and wondering why it’s failing, the chance that it’s connected to character arc is approximately one hundred percent—because character arc is the foundation of the whole thing.
As for taking off your own glasses and dealing with your personal delusions? Sorry, we can’t help you with that. We’re still wearing ours.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.
David G Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer with over twenty years' experience as an editor. He has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in magazines and literary journals, and he volunteers for the Malahat Review where he interviews writing judges and screens contest entries. He holds a BA in anthropology (UVic) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018.