Plot vs. Characters: Which is More Important?

It has been quite a while since I’ve done a post on writing as opposed to reading, but honestly I enjoy sharing my thoughts about reading because, when it comes to writing, I’m no expert. However, I started writing this article nearly a year ago and I thought I’d share with you guys my thoughts on this topic. So, whether you are an avid reader or a writer (or both like I am) I hope this article at least makes you think.

One of the hardest things to balance when it comes to writing is equilibrium between the progression of the plot and character development. It’s one of the most difficult things about writing fiction and, sadly, a lot of authors do a poor job at this. But which is more important? To demonstrate my thoughts on this topic, I want to examine two very different books.

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming and The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

The former one is completely based on plot, whereas the latter is based on characters. One I love and the other one I absolutely hate. But I want to delve deeper into each one to look at the positives and negatives of both.

I will confess, I’m not a huge James Bond fan, but I do like some of the movies. Minus the fact the Bond is a shallow, womanizing jerk, the action scenes are great and usually the plots are incredible inventive. The villains are evil, the women are beautiful, and the fighting scenes are so cool. You probably noticed I never mentioned that any of the James Bond films or movies features moving or interesting characters. That’s because that is not the point of James Bond. James Bond’s books are supposed to be fun spy thrillers, not complex character narrations.

In From Russia With Love, each and every character is compressed down to one or two character traits. James Bond is cool. Romanova (the love interest) is conniving and seductive. Rosa is evil. There is little to explain how any of them got that way, what their motivations are, or their inner turmoil. Absolutely nothing.

On the other hand, the plot is extremely fast-moving and interesting. You’re continually guessing what will happen next, who will turn on who, or if Bond with make it out alive. The plot is filled with quick pacing, twists and turns at every corner, and a satisfyingly annoying ending.

Now let’s look at The Help, which is a very different book. For those who don’t know, it follows a young writer in the 1960s who decides to write a book on “the help” or the black women working in white households. Unlike the previous book, the plot itself is very simply. Skeeter decides to write a book, interviews several of the women working as servants, and stirs up a whole lot of trouble. The book is slow-moving and the plot itself is slightly boring.

But there is one aspect which saves this book. The characters. From the three narrators (Skeeter and two of the black women Aibileen and Minny) to the minor characters (Yule May, Elaine Stein, etc.) everyone jumps off the page as a real person. Stockett takes the time to show each character’s troubles, good sides and bad sides, and strengths and weaknesses. She shows progressive, natural changes in the characters.

But you may ask, “Okay, I get what you’re saying. Fleming’s book emphasizes plot and Stockett’s emphasizes character. But which is more important?”

In giving you two examples, some of you probably got super excited at the mention of a fun thriller, but thought the other book looked kind of boring. On the other hand, other readers might have had the opposite reaction.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of James Bond. This was the first book I read featuring him and probably the last. On the other hand, I love The Help. I’m a character person. So if a book doesn’t have interesting characters, I don’t care about the plot. Of course, I love when there are the best of both worlds, but you can’t have everything in life.
But someone else might completely disagree with me.

However, I will end on this note. Different genres demand for different emphasis, but a book with a mediocre plot and great characters is probably a good book, whereas a great plot with bad characters is probably only going to be okay at best.

As a writer, I think understanding every aspect of what goes into a book is important. Understanding how people create developed characters. Understanding how pacing, conflict, and red herrings work.

Let me know your thoughts about Plot vs. Characters. Which is more important to you in a book? Let me know down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness, and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

10 thoughts on “Plot vs. Characters: Which is More Important?

  1. While one would prefer to have both great characters and an interesting plot in a novel, you’re right to observe that it is not very often the case. Myself, I would put the ratio at 70/30 for most books. Either the characters are really interesting and the plot is routine or the plot is rich and detailed and the characters not so much. The marriage of plot and character should, when it is done right, create the much sought out character arc on the one hand and the head-reeling plot twist on the other.

    As for Ian Fleming’s creation, James Bond is rightly considered a two dimensional character. He was set in stone in the first book and displayed no arc to speak of in the subsequent dozen or so novels. Despite that, and perhaps even because of that, he is much beloved by male readers because we (us flawed but honest ones) have a dash of the rake in us we shall not surrender to the world regardless of how toxic it labels it.

    There is a time for navel-gazing ( I guess,) but it is not when the fate of the Empire or the free world is at stake. 007 is a man of action. Bond’s two dimensions can be thought of as the two edges of a dagger. The original novels are pure pulp gold. Since Fleming’s passing, the character has been taken up by other writers who have tried to give Bond some depth but have only, for all their effort and good intentions, dulled the blade.

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    1. I always considered the appeal of Bond to be the same appeal of most books. That is, that you can live vicariously through a character. Though I disagree with Bond’s morals, I would be the first to admit he is extremely cool. Most people would probably love to be able to fight and talk like he does. I love your thoughts on this topic! They are very interesting to read, as I did not think of Bond in such a way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You can find deeper, more nuanced spies in LeCarre’s thrillers. They’re two different animals, James Bond and George Smiley. Both make for great reads however.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. For me, it’s always been character, character, character. A plot hinges on those characters – their relationships to one another, their motivations, their faults, and doubts. I always believed without character, there can be no plot.

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  3. While I think both are very important, a book with a great plot and two dimensional characters can read like an action movie. While great characters will facilitate our sinking into the story. Readers need characters they can relate to. That’s my two cents. Have a great week

    Liked by 2 people

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