Characterization vs. Plotting

"What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"
- Henry James

Here's a question for you: Is characterization more important than plotting in novel writing?

If you have read any other creative writing guides, you have probably stumbled upon this "Plot vs. Character" debate. The whole debate is actually a giant red herring, but I wanted to mention it here so that we need not bother with it again.

Some people claim that a gripping plot is the single most important ingredient of a novel. For others, it is well-rounded fictional characters that come first.

Most level-headed people, however (myself included), argue that characterization and plotting are of equal importance.

What Henry James is saying in the quote at the top is that without characters you have no action, and with no action you have no characters. In other words, it is impossible to separate the two.

What the character vs. plot debate is really about, of course, is the importance of each one in both literary fiction and genre fiction. I've already covered that in the section on Types of Novels, but I'll quickly outline it again...

  • The argument goes that literary fiction is more concerned with deep characterization than an entertaining plot.
  • It also says that genre fiction places plot above fully-rounded characters.

Both of these are true to an extent - fans of genre fiction are after a "good read" first and foremost, whereas fans of literary fiction are more forgiving of any "slow bits" in between in which the author might explore the characters in more depth.

But as I have said before, all good novels, whether literary or genre (or mainstream, for that matter), have compelling plots and well-rounded characters.

Sure, a literary novel will place a little more emphasis on the characters and a little less on the plot (and vice versa for a genre novel) but a strong plot and strong characters still need to be present in both types of novels.

Why have I bothered with this article at all, given that the question is a red herring and really not worth bothering with? For the simple reason that some of you might have wondered why I chose to deal with characters before plot here at Novel Writing Help.

Did I do that because I believe characters to be more important than plot?

No. They are of equal importance, whatever type of novel you plan to write. You need to create strong characters in both types of fiction.

The reason I put characterization before writing a plot is that - well, one of them had to come first, and it happened to be characters.

So now you know!

Next Step: With that little piece of housekeeping out of the way, it's time to roll up our sleeves and get down to business.

The first stage in your quest to become masters of character creation is to learn The First Rule of Creating Fictional Characters...

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