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Elizabeth Bowen On Character Development

There’s an old BBC interview from 1956 with Elizabeth Bowen, author of The Death of the Heart, in which she discusses the importance of strong characters.

She poses this question:

Would you or I, as readers, be drawn into a novel implicated with what may be its other issues, at all, if our interest was not pegged to the personalities and the outlook and the actions of the people whom we encounter inside the story? They are the attractive element in the book.

This being so, which comes first, naturally, into the mind of the novelist when he begins to work—the people (or characters) or the plot?

Bowen goes on to explain why, in her practice, the plot comes first.

Her thought being that the novelist needs to have the story developed to the point where they can determine “what kind of person would perform this action.” And that’s where the character development comes in.

It’s an interesting 11-minute interview (all in audio) if you want to go to the BBC site and listen.

So what’s your take: Which comes first—plot or characters?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brandon #

    Plot first, definitely. Books that read like character studies bore me to tears.

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    May 13, 2014
  2. chelseabrookeofficial #

    I would have to say characters come first. Some of my favorite works of all time–Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and even some of the newer Young Adult works as well as books like Game of Thrones have characters whose thoughts, beliefs and ways of acting propel the story forward. For example, if you look at something like Game of Thrones, any “shocking” event that happens is only shocking because your personality reacts against it. If you look at the motives behind every action in those books, you see that the characters consistently stay true to themselves–for good or ill. chelseabrookeofficial.wordpress.com

    Like

    May 13, 2014
  3. I’m going to agree with Chelsea Brooke – I think it’s important to have your characters fully figured out, because they should be the ones driving the plot. It can be really jarring when you’re reading a book/watching a movie and suddenly a character does something that’s, well, very uncharacteristic of them!

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    May 13, 2014
  4. I think it depends on the form of your inspiration. Some people have a story they need to tell, others have a person they want to create that embodies an idea. I guess personally, as a writer, I would say plot because I have a story to tell, so I need to make a character to tell it through. At certain points the plot and character development become co-dependent, but initially the vision for the story itself is what creates the possibility for the character development. I guess it also depends if you’re more modern or post-modern, or if you’re a traditionalist. Those things shape your idea of what’s important to a story, the character or the plot. I find the closer our worldviews get to modernism/postmodernism the more the emphasis is on the character rather than the plot b/c the ideals of reality have become too vague.

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    May 13, 2014
  5. I think characters evolve as the plot evolves and vice versa. It is a symbiotic relationship.

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    May 13, 2014
  6. Reblogged this on Bennison Books.

    Like

    May 13, 2014
  7. I agree with Jilanne Hoffmann. It depends on the type of story, and the source of inspiration. I’ve had both characters and plot as the first-comers in a new story idea. I usually hate the saying “it depends,” but in this case it’s true.

    Like

    May 13, 2014
  8. In looking back on the books I enjoy the most, it’s definitely a plot first that I prefer. But it won’t get a 5-star review unless the characters are well developed. Agree with Jilanne too … it’s symbiotic. All our 4+ star reviews have plot + characters: http://booksforherreviews.com/category/book-review/

    Like

    May 13, 2014
  9. I’m into both, actually–I have loved books that are both character-driven and books that are plot-driven. Depending on the book, though, I tend not to enjoy books that have no character development whatsoever (when speaking of fiction).

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    May 14, 2014
    • Yes, flat characters can kill a potentially good story.

      Like

      May 14, 2014
  10. When I write a story, it’s always the characters. They’re not fully formed at that point. I start asking questions. Like what does this character want? What is keeping her from getting what she wants? Once I know that I have a pretty good idea of what the plot is to be.

    Like

    May 14, 2014
  11. Reblogged this on scarlett cager and commented:
    Can’t wait to watch this!

    Like

    May 14, 2014
  12. Reblogged this on my personal thing.

    Like

    May 19, 2014

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