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Plot, Setting, and Character—Fiction’s Top 3

on February 24th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on February 26, 2011

Dozens of elements go into novels, into crafting quality fiction. Yet there is no doubt that plot, setting, and character deserve a great deal of attention.

Stories of every length are about characters doing things in some place—people, place, and event. Plot, setting, and character deal with the story of stories. This is what the reader opens a book to find. He doesn’t care about diction or point of view or pacing or the other elements of fiction that the writer is concerned with—except as those elements succeed or fail at creating an entertaining story. Yes, he may come to read elegant prose or the gritty rat-a-tat-tat of a crime novel, but he doesn’t want only to read words: he wants to experience adventure.

The reader comes to a novel to be entertained, to pass time, to lose himself in a world different from his own. He wants to imagine himself as the lead character, having exploits, going places he may never visit in his real life. He may come to story on a journey of self-discovery, willing to learn as the protagonist learns. 

He wants to identify with a person other than himself, experience events far from those of his daily life, become immersed in a new country or city or world. He wants character, plot, and setting. And he wants them realistic enough that he can become lost in the fiction.

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Lovers of fiction—readers, writers, editors, critics—see fiction divided into two camps. There’s the character-is-primary camp—often associated with literary fiction. And there’s the plot-first camp—often associated with genre fiction. Both sides agree that stories need characters doing things, overcoming adversities, coming to decision points. They agree that stories must take place somewhere.

Their basic disagreement is on the degree of emphasis given to character and plot. It’s not that either side seeks to rid story of one of the big three elements. It’s just that they find one approach to story to be superior—more comfortable, more entertaining, or perhaps more enriching than the other.

Neither side doubts the value of setting, though no writer will approach his use of setting the same way any other writer does. Still, writers and readers expect a story to take place somewhere and at some time. Writers and readers recognize that setting affects mood and event possibilities and character temperament. Setting is a necessity, but it doesn’t necessarily attract readers the way plot and character do. Readers don’t come to a novel and follow breathlessly because of where the story is set. (Though a reader may choose a book with one setting over a book with another, other elements being equal. That is, a reader may enjoy murder mysteries investigated by a plucky amateur sleuth but prefer the London of 1880 to the twenty-first century Australian outback.) 

Readers come for the characters, to see how they’ll overcome the obstacles of their lives. Or, viewed from the other side, they come for a plot that entertains, one that influences character behavior and thought. A story that changes a character’s life.

Character First

Those who prefer the emphasis on character find that the focus on character motivation and conflict, character insight, and character goals and desires makes for rich fiction. They want a novel to spend more time dealing with the characters’ thoughts and dilemmas. They want the characters’ interests to drive the story. In their experience, a deep knowledge of character provides a more satisfying read. Without intimate knowledge of character, they can’t get involved in the events happening to him. Connection with character gives them a stronger connection to the story.

In a character-driven story, we are likely to find more inner debate, more character angst, more opportunities for decision making, and fewer action scenes. What the character thinks and feels is given more emphasis than what he does. The character drives the story events.

He still acts and reacts, since action is one indicator of his thoughts and a key to what he believes in. But plot is not the driver of his story. Events are secondary to the character’s thoughts, emotions, and growth. Events are excuses for that growth.

A story with emphasis on character growth can be richly satisfying since the reader has many points with which he can identify, many possible connection points with the character.

However, if the reader doesn’t like the main character and does not connect with him, there is greater chance that reader also won’t enjoy or finish the book. Readers can read just to see if a character they dislike gets his comeuppance, yet that dislike doesn’t create the same emotional and intellectual ties to character that a sympathetic character would create.

In addition to the chance of creating a lead character that readers don’t like or won’t identify with, the writer whose emphasis is on character rather than plot may write a novel without enough story.

That is, the major complaint of character-first stories is that the reader finds them boring.

Of what interest is a novel in which nothing of consequence happens?

Plot First

Those who prefer an emphasis on plot enjoy more time spent with story events and less emphasis on a character’s thoughts and motivations. They want action and event, and find that these events are what propel the story. The focus is on what’s happening and how characters are affected by events rather than the way characters grow or how they direct events. The plot directs the character.

Plot-first stories typically spend a greater amount of time outside the lead character’s head.

Characters still have motivation and goals, but they may be nebulous or thin, merely excuses for the character to delve into matters beyond his everyday interests.

Stories with intricate or exciting plots keep the reader on the edge of his seat, anxious to see how the lead character will solve the problem or get out of the jam. Something’s always happening, and the forward momentum is obvious. Less time is given to character contemplation or character growth, although both may be part of the overall story.

Because of the emphasis on events and how they affect not only the main character but anonymous others, character development may suffer.

A major complaint of plot-first novels? There may be a lot happening, but who cares?

How does the reader care what happens to the characters when he doesn’t know the characters?

Contrast

Fiction without fleshed-out characters takes on the feel of an action movie peopled with robots—individual scenes may be exciting, but the reader is removed from any emotion or involvement in the scene. When there is nothing at stake for a character—or no character invested in the story—the reader also has nothing invested. He cannot feel emotion for a character he doesn’t know, one he doesn’t care about. And he can’t care about a character who isn’t developed, who is merely a physical caricature without thoughts, dreams, goals, and motivations.

We’ve all seen action movies that left us feeling empty. A lot might have been going on, but without characters to get involved with, we couldn’t really care what happened. Story requires memorable characters to engage the reader (or viewer). And even though we accept non-human characters, it’s those humans (or characters with human qualities) whose dilemmas tug at us.

It’s the writer’s responsibility to create connection points for the reader, connections to tie reader to both character and to plot. Anchor the reader to the whole of the story.

On the other hand, wonderfully developed characters rich in needs and inner conflict who do nothing are ultimately boring. Their motivations may be complex and fascinating, but if the characters don’t interact with others and their setting, they’re simply portraits painted with exceptional detail. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum and live only in their heads. They need to be active, involved with others, with setting, with the events happening around them. And the more involved they are with others and those events—causing events and reacting to them—the more the reader will be drawn into the story.

Remember the children’s dress-up game that allowed a boy or girl to stick characters on a board and dress them? The kids could put a girl in a raincoat and stick raindrops on the background to show the weather conditions. If a novel’s characters have as little true interaction with their setting and with other characters as these toy characters did, the story can be just as thin as the tales the children created with their game.

They were limited because the little plastic pieces couldn’t interact with anyone else, could do little with their setting. But a writer can control the interplay between characters and between character & setting and character & plot. And that’s exactly what the writer needs to do.

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Quick Overview

Character

Characters are the beings, the actors, of story. They can be human, animal, mechanical, or any combination thereof. Readers typically search for a character they can identify with to better relate to a story. Character answers the question who.

Novels typically follow the lead character, the protagonist, through the story events. This protagonist is acted on by other characters and events in the story and acts on those other characters and events in turn. Something out of the ordinary—an inciting event—moves the lead character from the status quo and into the drama of the story. Something’s at stake for him, and the story revolves around his actions to resolve the problem(s) he faces.

Critical to the story are the main character’s goals (what he wants), motivation (why he’s going after what he wants), and conflict (conflict with himself, others, their goals, or something in the setting).

He is opposed and/or challenged by the antagonist, another character with goals and motivations of his own. Their conflict is one of the major drivers of the plot.

Main characters, both protagonist and antagonist, have friends who help them achieve their goals and prevent their opponent from reaching his. Additional characters can bring veracity to setting and create opportunities for even more conflict.

Plot

Plot is the whole of the events of the story. This is the action (action includes dialogue), the part of story that answers the question what happened.

Plot unfolds through scenes, through story events and dialogue. Plot events can take place right in front of the reader or be related to him through flashback or by exposition. Plot is concerned with events that happen to the main characters and that have an impact on their decisions. Sub-plots can be added for tension or to expand on the main story or to complicate it, but they shouldn’t be given more emphasis than the main plot.

Setting

Setting is the place of story. It includes locations (office, bedroom, bar, cave, forest), cities or countries or planets, era or age, time of day, and cultural milieu. Setting answers the questions where and when.

A change in a novel’s setting produces a new story. That is, a story whose setting contributes to the tone and plot cannot be dropped into a different setting and remain the same story.

Setting influences character type, word choice, pace, tone, even genre. Setting enhances story by enfolding plot and character in a place where they fit, where their strengths can best be highlighted. Setting helps characters and events shine, it gives them a backdrop that allows them to show what best fits the story and hide what doesn’t belong.

Setting wraps the story in a package that provides plot & character clues and motivations and instigators that hold the story elements together in a cohesive unit.

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Writers may naturally emphasize character over plot or plot over character. As do readers, writers have their preferences. One writer may have learned how to write character before she learned how to plot or vice versa. Or, one may have a natural talent for action rather than the psychological development of characters and therefore leans first to plot. Whatever comes easiest is likely to be the element on which the writer spends most of her time. If she’s good at it, why not emphasize her strength?

Yet, all writers can bring more to their stories, more character motivation or more action. They can take their strengths and add to them by learning more about how to delve into character and how to write action scenes that have the reader turning the pages for more.

Writers can use setting to bolster their weak areas—bring depth to a plot-first story by introducing a setting that heightens the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Or use setting, some place of great meaning for the main character, as a jumping off place for a dramatic action scene.

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Plot, setting, and character are deep topics with many facets. I’m sure we’ll explore more of those facets—independently and in relation to one another—over the course of many articles.

As you write, remember the reasons the reader comes to fiction. To be entertained, to explore something new, to be challenged mentally or emotionally, to be satisfied by the story, a story that’s about some person doing some thing somewhere. See that your readers are satisfied by giving them a pleasing blend of character, plot, and setting.

Give them a plot that goes somewhere and characters they can care about in a setting that enhances both.

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3 Responses to “Plot, Setting, and Character—Fiction’s Top 3”

  1. JC Phalene says:

    Some really helpful information here for an aspiring author like me. Thank you for making it available. J.C.

  2. JC, it’s my pleasure. I’m glad you found information you can use.

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