Monday 16 May 2011

What is more important - plot or character?

Part one: plot
There are many books that are successful and have no plot as such – they rely entirely on charismatic characters and their interaction. Strangely enough I can't remember the titles of any of them.
Some people think the most important thing is the plot – never mind the characters or their motivation – all they want is a gripping story that keeps them on the edge of their seats. Dan Brown is a master of this.
For me the combination of the two is essential. I want my main characters to leap off the page they are so real but I also want an enthralling story for the hero, heroine, villain and other sundry characters to move about in.I don't mind if it's a thriller written by Lee Child or Michael Connelly or a historical action adventure by Bernard Cornwell – they all have the required ingredients.
 A well-written saga, such as Perhaps Tomorrow by Jean Fullerton, will also keep me engrossed. Recently I read House of Silence by Linda Gillard which is a Gothic type contemporary romance and this held me from the first page to the last.I have just reviewed two books for the HNS which were equally gripping. One, The Blue Suitcase by Marianne Wheelagen and the other The Wordsmith’s Tale by Stephen Edden. Both are historical, quite different, but they had believable characters, excellent plotting and totally absorbing historical detail.I can recommend any of these books if you want an absorbing read.


There are various schools of thought on the best way to plot but all of them would agree that a book without a plot is rarely worth reading.My books have a linear plot, a story that runs through the book chronologically. This works for me and for my genre, Regency romantic adventure. Initially I divided pages into sections to represent each chapter then filled in the main points of the story – this was very useful if I got the dreaded "middle sag". Nowadays, with my Regency romances, I start with the main characters and then work the story out in my head before I start. I jot down the names of any new characters as they appear but apart from that write nothing apart from the story itself. However, when I'm writing a Victorian family saga or World War II romantic suspense, I revert to written plotting. This is because these books are more complex and it is essential to get actual historical events in the right place.
Jean Fullerton works on an A4 grid system for her complex Victorian sagas. Before she begins to write she fills in all the relevant historical events in the correct box. Next she adds the names of the characters that appear in each scene and what actually takes place. She then follows this grid until she has completed the book. She colour codes the names in order to keep a check on points of view. 
Linda Gillard used a different method when she wrote A Lifetime Burning. She wrote individual scenes and then assembled the book afterwards. This book is non-chronological, rather than linear and her method worked perfectly. The end result is still a riveting read.
 There are, no doubt, several other ways of plotting which work equally well. The main thing is for the author to produce a good book. A natural storyteller is a rarity – most of us have to work hard to achieve an engrossing story.
In my next blog I will discuss characters.

Fenella Miller


  1. A very interesting, helpful and informative post, Fenella. I'm keen to pop back next time for your post on characters!

  2. I shall talk to a few writers tonight at the RNA party and be able to use their views in the next post. Thanks for reading it.