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Inspired Creative Writing 5


Who’s the daddy: character or plot?

This is the fifth excerpt from Inspired Creative Writing by Alexander Gordon Smith from the brisk and entertaining 52 Brilliant Ideas series. This month, Who’s the daddy: character or plot?

Fifth excerpt

Who’s the daddy: character or plot?


Like it or not, it’s your characters that drive your work. Getting them right will make the difference between writing a masterpiece and an episode of Days of Our Lives.

Try to imagine ‘Great Expectations’ minus Pip. Or ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ sans Holden Caulfield, ‘The Great Gatsby’ without Gatsby, Emma without Emma, Harry get the idea – if you don’t get your characters right, your work won’t work.


52 Brilliant Ideas – Inspired creative writing


If Aristotle and E. M. Forster ever meet in the Great Beyond the encounter might just end in fisticuffs. These two had a great deal to say about the written work, but didn’t always see eye to eye. Aristotle famously stated that plot was more important than character when it came to dramatic effect. Forster, on the other hand, claimed that in order for literature to work it has to be driven by its characters.

Most writers side either with Aristotle in the red corner or back Forster in the blue. In other words, you either have organic characters in mind who are born into your fiction and left to develop much like real people, or you have the action in mind and carve your characters to fit.

There are pros and cons to both approaches, but one of the similarities between the plot-driven story and the character-driven story is that in both cases the cast has to seem genuine.

52 Brilliant Ideas – Inspired creative writing

Here’s an idea for you...

Pick a character you’ve been working on for a while and write several sketches placing them in unusual scenarios. Start off small: try several different seemingly mundane scenarios from your character’s past, then pick something more dramatic, the kind of thing you’d find in a plot-based story – a nuclear explosion, an alien invasion, anarchy on the streets of the capital. Now place the same character in the action and see what happens.



Strong, well-developed characters can become so real in your mind that they drive the story. At one point in my own writing career I thought it impossible for the author to lose control, but while writing one novel I was amazed to find that the characters I had created didn’t always want to follow my plan of action – like your own children finally learning to talk back.

When they become ‘autonomous’ in this way, let them lead for a while. You might be pleasantly surprised where it takes you. Be warned, however, that when you let your characters off the leash they may wander errantly in circles and end up accomplishing nothing but boring a reader to tears.


For those of you thinking of approaching from the other side of the fence, a plot-driven narrative can be equally tricky. Writing your characters around a plot will almost always ensure that they do enough to sustain the reader’s attention. The problem here, however, is whether they will do so realistically. Just like bespoke furniture, your characters can look a little artificial, as though they were constructed to fill a particular role and have no existence or history in your written world outside of this.


While literary fisticuffs are always entertaining, a healthy balance between plot and character is the path to success. Or, as Henry James put it, ‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’ Plot is basically the result of human activities and adventures, and even if you don’t know what’s going to happen, your characters’ actions will drive the narrative. In other words, if you’ve got a detailed enough understanding of your characters, the plot will evolve itself.

If, on the other hand, you’re building your fiction around a plot, then this depth of character is still vital. Remember, even if you know what your plot will entail, your characters still don’t. The incidents that occur in the course of the story will enable them to evolve and grow much like real people, and they must behave and respond like real people in those situations in order to seem real. If you don’t have a grip of who your characters really are, then it doesn’t matter how exciting the action, or how seamless the narrative: none of it will be convincing because the cast won’t seem real.

Idea 13 – Who’s the daddy: character or plot?

Defining idea...

‘Plot is character and character plot.’



How did it go?

Q I’m a big softie at heart and I’m not sure I want to put my characters in a dangerous situation. What should I be looking for in such a perilous task?

A The idea is to learn more about your characters by thinking about the way they’d act. Are they heroic or cowardly? Grounding a character in the reality of a more down-to-earth scene can help give a rounder picture of her, and make you think more carefully about the way she reacts to events.

Q I’ve heard people talk about round characters and flat characters. What’s the difference?

A The terms were coined by E. M. Forster. Round characters are fully developed and comprehensively thought out; characters described in less detail, and who behave in stereotypical and predictable ways, are flat. By all means use flat characters for subsidiary roles (keeping secondary characters less developed stops them getting in the way of the main action), but always ensure your main characters are as well developed as possible.

Q Surely if my plot is exciting enough the characters just need to be props. Why should I take the time to question their motives?

A Go and wash your mouth out! Every character has to have a recognizable foundation of humanity. No matter who the reader is, they will know what it feels like to be scared, happy, angry, hopeful. If they can’t see similar emotional responses in a character they won’t empathise, and they’ll just switch off.


The first excerpt

The second excerpt

The third excerpt

The fourth excerpt

The sixth excerpt

Inspired Creative Writing by Alexander Gordon Smith is published at £12.99 as part of the 52 Brilliant Ideas series by Infinite Ideas. To buy this book please visit their website at

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