The Unity of Character and Plot

Several years ago, at the North Carolina Writers Network conference, I attended a session where the instructor claimed that character is plot. While I understand her point, I think she went too far. Many things happen in our lives that we can’t control. In fiction, the response to external events demonstrates character and propels plot. But generally, by the end of the story, the protagonist becomes proactive instead of responsive, and the protagonist’s positive action creates the climax.

Character and plot must work in harmony. For the story to be believable, the actions the character takes must be consistent with the character you’ve created. For instance, imagine if two of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, Hamlet and Othello, were the protagonist in each other’s stories. How would those plays go?

Act I, Scene 1: The ghost of the old king tells Othello to avenge the old king’s death by killing Claudius.
Act I, Scene 2: Othello kills Claudius.
The End

No story, right? And if Iago hinted to Hamlet that Desdemona were cheating on him, Hamlet would answer, “You cannot play upon me.”

For the two plays to work, Othello‘s hero must display extraverted, sensing, judging energy, while Hamlet‘s hero must display introverted, intuitive, perceiving energy.

Keep in mind, though, that when under extreme stress, people (and characters) behave in ways they never would otherwise. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises novelists to imagine something their character would never think, say, or do—then create a situation where the character thinks, says, or does exactly that. If it’s critical to your story that your character behave in uncharacteristic ways, put that character in an environment of increasing stress, until the point that the character’s “shadow” takes over. Isabel Myers defined the “shadow” as the inferior function. It is the least developed, and the one least likely to be used in a rational and mature manner—even in the best of times. When someone is under stress, and the inferior function takes charge, the results can be disastrous.

In your own stories, do character and plot work in harmony? If a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way, be sure to show that the character is under enough stress to make the action believable.

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