This is a trick question, of course, because both character and plot are crucial for a successful novel. Sometimes people get the wrong idea that a character-driven novel is boring or that a plot-driven book is lowbrow. Don’t get caught up in this false dichotomy. What you want to do is write a story about unforgettable characters going on a journey that prompts readers to finish the book and tell all their friends (or #booktok followers) to go read it. Still, when you’re prepping and planning, it’s a common question to ask: what’s more important—character or plot?
Length Matters in the Character vs. Plot Debate
In short stories, a smaller tale about a particular character can work, even if that character isn’t doing much. But in long form, like a novel, those characters must do enough and provide enough mystery for the reader to turn pages. However, the book also has to be about someone compelling. If you’re a novelist, you need both, but how you get there is up to you. Need more tips on writing short fiction? Check out this article: Sharpen Your Writing Skills with Short Fiction.
Plotter, Meet Pantser
Are you a plotter or a pantser? These are kind of silly terms, but writers broadly fall into one of the two categories. Plotters know what’s going to happen by the end of the story. They might have even mapped out what’s going on down to the chapter. Pantsers like to ride by the “seat of their pants” and “find” the plot while they write. Neither is right or wrong. However, which one you gravitate toward might give a window into whether your book focuses more on character or plot.
For instance, if you’re a plotter, you have a strong sense of plot. How else could you know what would happen in Chapter 8 when you sit in front of a blinking cursor? This isn’t to say that character isn’t important to you, but it is to say that plot might feature heavily in your book. By contrast, pantsers tend to think more about character first. They don’t know what will happen in Chapter 8 until they see what their characters do in Chapters 1-7. For them, the characters “make the choices.”
What I’m trying to say here is that your personal writing style will likely dictate which writing element gets more attention from you. Neither method is right or wrong, and emphasis on character or plot is fine, provided you ultimately attend to both. Some readers like primarily plot-centric books and others want a character study. Go with what appeals to your sensibilities.
Know Your Weakness
If you have a heavily plotted book, or you’ve received criticism that beta readers don’t “know” your characters well, use editing time as a way to bolster this part of your writing. Where can you add in characterization? How can you make your dialogue come to life now that you know these people better? Can you drop hints or memories about their past?
The same thing goes with plot. If you have richly drawn characters who meander a little too much in the first act, don’t be afraid to cut chapters and get to the action sooner. If you’re a pantser who took some time to find the center of the story, you might have to be freer with the delete button. That’s okay. As long as you accept that your first draft is just the opening salvo, you can overcome weaknesses in either plot or character so that your final version shines.