Settings, Characters, and Plots, Oh My!
by Teresa Grabs
Settings, characters, and plots form the foundation of almost all writing. Together, they are easy to understand and theoretically flow from one to the other seamlessly. Where does the story take place (the setting), who or what is the story about (the character), and what happens (the plot). Individually, however, they take on a life of their own and unfortunately contribute to many debates within the literary community.
Every reader is familiar with a setting. It is the environment where events take place. They can be secondary to the story, such as a park or car and used simply as a backdrop, or they can be a character themselves, such as Hogwarts or the TARDIS.
Does that make the setting more important than other elements?
Some argue, yes, it does. There cannot be a good story without a good setting. The more people explore this position, the clearer it becomes that while the setting certainly helps create the atmosphere necessary to tell the story, the role of the setting lends itself more to character development and expression than anything else.
Would Harry Potter be different if he had attended Durmstrang? Would Superman be different if he lived in Wichita, Kansas?
It changes the feel of the story, sure, but the plots could be unchanged. What matters in many cases, is that the setting allows the character to develop and interact. It allows readers to determine the character’s internal, undefined traits that make them human.
The character is, for many, the heart of the story. This contributes to fan-fiction demand, sequels, and even contributes to the expansion from print to film. Readers fall in love with characters. These characters do not need to be inherently good, there are many people who fall in love with the antagonist and are just as crushed when the story ends.
The TARDIS is an empty shell without The Doctor. Hogwarts is just another School of Witchcraft and Wizardry without Harry Potter.
Authors who focus on character development, both explicit and implicit, create an insatiable demand. One that contributes to the development of other writers who create characters of their own. The cyclical contribution of depth and development within the literary community is something that should be nurtured.
It could be argued that the plot is the most fluid of the three elements. Even more fluid than the setting. If the character is alive (i.e. well-developed) then they can be put in any plot and create a new story. Authors must be wary though of major shifts in plots after developing the character however as there are now established parameters for that character’s behavior.
Plots provide a framework for a story, but the character determines if that plot is plausible. Having a disconnect between character and plot, creates holes that weaken the entire story and eventually it cannot stand.
Every story is different. Some are setting driven (e.g. Cloud Atlas, Dune, Lord of the Rings), some are plot driven (e.g. Jurassic Park, The Da Vinci Code, The Maze Runner), and some are character driven (e.g. The Secret Life of Bees, The Fault in Our Stars, Hannibal).
All three types of books (setting-, plot-, character-driven) have settings, characters, and plots, but the difference rests in what part(s) of the foundation can be exchanged for an equivalent item and remain essentially the same story.
● Any character could have been the protagonist in Frank Herbert’s Dune, but the story would not be the same if it took place on Earth rather than Dune.
● Any scientist could replace Alan Grant, but without loose dinosaurs, there would be no reason to care about the scientists.
● Hannibal can kill in any time period or location, but his story cannot exist without him.
Is one type of story better than another? Of course not! There is a place and need for all three types of stories. Debates pop up when people (writers and readers alike) believe that one is inherently better than the others - or that stories must develop all three equally. Unfortunately, these arguments diminish the value and contribution that each type of book makes to the literary community. The more variation in story drivers, the more readers can be introduced to different characters, settings, and plots. Variation is a key to creative development, so promoting and exploring each way of building a story can only create a stronger writer.