Recently, I’ve been thinking about the convergence of character and plot, which results in two types of stories. I see this in my work with editorial clients, but it can also extend to the offerings on the shelves. Sometimes there are stories about making fate, and sometimes there are stories about following it. Both are valid and interesting, but there are unique considerations to each.
What is your protagonist setting out to do in the story? Is their future an open book or are they bound by some sort of mechanism to a specific outcome?
Character and Plot: Making Fate
In the example of “making fate,” I’d say that your protagonist has something that they absolutely, positively want (objective) and they set out to get it. They are more active throughout, and they drive the events of the story by pursuing whatever it is. They are the tip of the arrow, and the plot follows from them. They will encounter obstacles, certainly, and they will be frustrated in their pursuits, but if I look on the page, I will see someone who is spearheading the story. It’s a character driven story, more or less, with usually some wrenches thrown into the mix.
Character and Plot: Following Fate
In the example of “following fate,” I’d say you’re writing about a character who may or may not be in charge of dictating where the story is headed. One very common version of this is the “Chosen One” or “prophecy” story style, where the protagonist has something they’re bound to do, whether they like it or not. This is usually sprung upon them at a very inopportune time in their lives, and has dire consequences if they reject the fate or fail at their mission. In this case, the protagonist isn’t as much the leader of their destiny as they are a follower, and in stories like this, the plot leads the character’s development instead of the other way around.
Should Your Protagonist Make Fate or Follow Fate?
Both story types are valid. But character and plot have a lot to learn from one another. I think that, in the long run, a strong character has more potential than the one that’s simply following orders, training, learning their mission from a dusty piece of parchment or oracle, etc. etc. etc. So when there’s a “Chosen One” plot on my desk, I suggest that the writer find some agency for the character and let them lead certain events, rather than spend the bulk of the plot being groomed by others to fulfill a prophecy.
If you’re worried that this might be describing your plot, here’s a previous post on writing character decisions so that your protagonist manages to steer, regardless of their circumstances. And take heart, though this story type has the potential to lie flat on the page, and I see it a lot in aspiring manuscripts, two of the most famous heroes in children’s literature have started in this situation. Katniss in The Hunger Games and a little wizard named Harry both had their destinies planned. Katniss was to die as a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and Harry had the double pleasure of first facing the destiny of being forced into an ordinary Muggle life, then being forced into a very extraordinary wizard’s life. While he does end up filling his extraordinary wizard shoes (the prophecy of the Boy Who Lived comes true), he does it in his own way.
While I don’t often see this issue, a character driven story can run into trouble as well. When these stories go south, it’s because they can be all personal conflict (internal) without too much plot tension (external), because that decision-making protagonist tends to be the end-all and be-all within a story.
It’s All About Balance
What’s the conclusion to this line of thought? The usual. When it comes to character and plot, it’s all about balance. If your plot is driving your character, give your character some moments of choosing her own destiny. If your character is driving your plot, let their relentless drive forward take a few unexpected left turns, courtesy of an enhanced plot.
Hire me to be your book editor and I’ll help you evaluate if you have a strong protagonist who’s driving the plot.