15.16: Balancing Plot and Character

Your Hosts: Brandon, Victoria, Dan, and Howard

We’re often asked how to balance character arcs with the intricacies of the plots we create. In this episode we talk about the various ways in which we do this.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Create a three-pillar mythos for your character: What do they fear, what do they want, and what are they willing to do to get what they want. Then give them a mantra, or a code by which they live.  Then create a scenario in which the mantra and the pillars collide, and something’s got to give.

Chernobyl, the 2019 HBO miniseries starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson

5 thoughts on “15.16: Balancing Plot and Character”

  1. The group denies that Fantasy/Sci-fi writing is not exclusively a plot genre and that it can use characterization no less than literary works. I fully agree. Many of my favorite explorations of characters are from fantasy/sci-fi.


    I believe we all as fantasy writers don’t use the strengths of fantasy writing, plotting and world building, as intentionally with the character building as we could.

    I love Brandon’s Mistborn books, but it’s clear from his process that he devised the world and limited magic system first. Then only when the character moments arrived, did he considered how they would be expressed via the magic system. He still excecutes the scenes amazingly, but it speaks to a ‘world first, character second’ philosophy that I think almost every single fantasy author unconsciously uses (I do too). But i think this is why fantasy fiction generally loses to literary fiction in terms of deep exploration of character.

    I have seen (I think) the fantasy writing philosophy reversed in a few stories. I will try to explain why I think I can say they are different.

    ***Spoilers ahead***

    Arrival, seemed to have its ‘language changes perception of everything’ as its core message from the outset. I feel like once that was established the writing process ended up being something like: ‘what kind of language would produce a perception completely different from a human? Alien language.’, ‘What kind of Aliens would have a profoundly different perspective to us? Aliens that don’t perceive time linearly’, ‘How would that non-linear thinking be expressed?’ ‘With words that have no beginning or end.’ … Etc etc.

    ***Spoilers behind***

    I feel this is the exact opposite of most alien vistor stories, which start with the idea of aliens visiting, then deciding what their strange characteristics are, and then think how humans would react. The story creator experience is the same as the story watcher experience. The thematic message is chosen last, instead of first. It is put on as icing, not used as the foundation for the cake.

    Maybe I’m make my something out of nothing but I think this setting/premise focused style of fantasy writing is not what all authors should strive for. I think a process where we identify a core character moment or a theme before we build the world, would be good for increasing the depth of writing.

  2. On the tightrope, balancing character arcs and plot tension, we have Brandon, Victoria, Dan, and Howard putting their thumbs on the scale to help with that feather… Talking about three big questions, how do you balance plot/pacing and character scenes, how do you decide whether to emphasize plot or character, and how do you create strong emotional responses. Lots of little bits of advice on the scales, so go read all about it in the transcript now available in the archives.

  3. I have some episodes downloaded from other seasons – including one on protagonists and heroes all the way back from season 1! – that I always listen to when brainstorming plot. They’re never fail to give me ideas. Now I have to add the Victoria-ones to that playlist because when she talks about character… that sparks a lot of neat stuff. Thank you! :)

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