My question is if you run into characterization vs. plot conflicts, or unlikeable characters, do you do major changes to your characters to fit the plot or do you make major changes to your plot to fit your characters?

I am running into a problem with my rough draft and some key plot points planned for later books in the series.

One of my key problems is lack of understanding how my characters would react realistically to the situations I put them in. The framework for the plot I established a while ago and before I understood some things I understand now. Some of the situations I put them through could potentially make it unrealistic or seem out of character for them to desire cooperating further with my plot.

Say I have a soldier who has a near death experience, is burned out fighting a war. The plot calls him to go back and join the army to become potentially the next commander. (because he can't view himself able to do anything else). He may be able to decide later, but if I let him make that decision, that means critically readjusting a lot of rough drafts/ book ideas following that choice. (of the two problems this likely is the lesser, since I already figured out an alternative job for him to pursue, but he still has to at least be willing to go back into the army for a period of time in order to pull off the plot I have planned.

Another problem: I might end up with an unforgivable/ unlikeable main character. I wasn't intending this, but I wanted my main soldier character to do some act in his career that can be seen as a valid reason for my main secondary character to be willing to object and leave. I wanted both to have their good and bad points with their decision, but it seems I end up bordering on making either the one making the orders a potential war criminal or the other into being a deserter. I played out both of those ideas in my head and liked how it played on their guilt, as well as the need for redemption for the one giving orders, but my friend pointed out that neither a war criminal nor a deserter would be liked by the audience and would make that character or both characters unforgivable and render my entire series unlikeable. (unless I kill them off which isn't quite an option. I played that out in my head too and decided it would ruin more than keeping them alive.)

I'm getting stuck and I fear a writer's block coming up if I can't work a solution out that can validate the guilt/ shame/ emotions from both sides (the one giving the orders and the one who objected), as well as setting off the desire to make things right for the larger picture without making an unlikeable character.

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    Chris Kyle was a racist, egoist and a (possibly) somewhat psychopathic character, but he behaved himself and amassed at least 160 frags and used his inner Hatred Guy to protect his fellow soldiers. Remember: Good is not necceserally nice. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 20:54
  • "One of my key problems is lack of understanding how my characters would react realistically to the situations I put them in" - That's the challenging part of writing a story. Do lotsa research and reading about the character's background, read bout people who inspired or are like the character etc. - if you find it difficult to easily get into this character's frame of mind. Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 5:12
  • "Another problem: I might end up with an unforgivable/ unlikeable main character" - you can have that and not be in worry. It's been done many times - some characters are intentionally built to confuse the audience and not let them sympathise. An enigmatic character has their own charm. It's been done in cornerstone works like Lolita and the Talented Mr Ripley already. Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 5:15

5 Answers 5


Plot is the servant of character. One of the most common mistakes of beginning writers seems to be to start by inventing a plot -- essentially an imaginary history -- and then peopling it with characters to make it go. But stories are about characters. More specifically, they are about character arc.

There are lots of good books you can read on this subject. My favorite is Robert McKee's Story. It is written for screenwriters, so be careful not to translate any screenwriting techniques to the page, but the central thesis is the nature of story itself, and that is what you should pay attention to.

Here is how I would distill it (and you will find expanded versions of this in many of my answers, since this fundamental story shape is the answer to a lot of writing questions). A story starts with a character who has a desire. The desire may be long standing or it may be brought about by events (sudden separation from home, etc.). There are also obstacles to the character achieving their desire. Each obstacle forces the character to dig deeper, to give more to achieve their desire or to question the desire itself. Finally they are brought to a point of decision where they must make a fundamental moral choice -- that is, a choice about values. They then make that choice, one way or the other. The story then concludes by proving, through action, that they have made that choice.

Plot is a contrivance to create desire and to throw obstacles in the way of its attainment. Readers will put up with a great deal of artificiality in the plot as long as those events are throwing up new obstacles, not removing them. Difficulties may arise by the most outrageous coincidence; they can only be overcome by virtue.

Each character in a story has their own arc, though the arcs of minor characters are not necessarily resolved. But their arcs are what give them life and substance in your story, what make them plausibly support or oppose your central characters.

So, start with your character: who are they, what do they want, and what obstacles (character, values, external forces) stand in the way of their getting what they want? The create a plot to force them to confront those obstacles, building towards the ultimate moral decision that every character must face.

  • I beg to disagree with "Plot is the servant of character" maxim. For example, what if JRR Tolkien was about to write "The Hobbit", but it turned out that his original Bilbo is too sedentary and lacks the desire for adventure. So, Bilbo should stay at home, Gandalf's expedition ends in failure, and One Ring is never to be found?
    – Alexander
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 18:19
  • @Alexander The Hobbit (and the title suggests) is about a character, a Hobbit, who is a homebody, from a land of homebodies, who half decides and is half cajoled into going on an adventure. His quest to become a useful member of the dwarves crew and prove his worth is central to his character arc. The ring (it was not jet the one ring that it would become in LOTR, just a magic ring) is just a plot device, part of Bilbo's growth into his role as thief. So character very much comes first in the Hobbit, and plot is very much in the service of character.
    – user16226
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 22:05
  • you are talking here not just about character, but character's arc. In other words, the character needs to be just right to go through this specific arc. Conversely, in Bilbo was more sedentary, that would have been a completely different (and probably less interesting) arc, right?
    – Alexander
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 22:38
  • @Alexander No. A character is not a person. A character is a literary construct. The character and the arc are inseparable. The character exists to animate the arc. The essence of a story is, what if a person X who loved Y and wanted Z was forced to make a choice between Y and Z. What would that be like? Character, as a literary device is X, Y, and Z all rolled up together. Plot is what forces the choice between Y and Z in the live of a person like X.
    – user16226
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 22:49
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    @Alexander A problem solved neatly by making Bilbo part Took, and Tooks were always adventurous. Much is made of the Tookish side of Bilbo in The Hobbit. Could the Took ancestry be a kind of pre-publication retcon by Tolkien in order to make the character go along with the plot? Well maybe, but then that would make an excellent answer to this question: If the character refuses to go anywhere near the plot, one of them has to change, so you could start with a different character or have something different befall the character that would drive them where you want them to go. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 23:35

Don't let your friend scare you away from doing what you know is right for your book. Sure, it makes it more challenging to keep the audience's sympathies when the main characters do unlikable things, but that's where your skill comes in as a writer.

Nabakov's narrator in Lolita is a monstrous child abuser. The most compelling character in Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs is a cannibalistic killer. C.D. Payne's narrator in Youth in Revolt is a relentlessly selfish and self-sabotaging amoralist who cannot find a situation he is unable to make worse. It didn't lessen the popularity of any of those best-sellers.

We all do wrong things in life, things we regret. If you can help us empathize with the character, see things from his point of view, understand his choices, and watch him experience realistic consequences, then we'll be compelled by his story, not repelled. Nothing is truly "unforgivable" in fiction except bad writing.

  • Dude, Lolita, great minds.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 15:17
  • @DPT Well, it's the textbook case of how a truly great author can give you some empathy for a basically irredeemable character. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 16:35

The provided answers are very good. As evidence of the importance of prioritizing character over plot, look at any good novel, or recall your favorite stories, and ask yourself what you remember about them and why you liked them.

I have two additional thoughts.

  1. The character who 'needs' to return to war for your plot reasons. - You can try to come up with a list, of as many ways you can think of, for why he would return to war. This is an exercise to think outside the box. For your story, it is best if he does not simply decide, "OK, I'll go." That's not satisfying. It should be a crisis of some sort for him, before he agrees. Maybe:

a. he has been coopted by the opposition, is now a double agent.

b. he has fallen in love, and his love interest is in mortal danger in the army.

c. He has a traumatic brain injury and develops amnesia/etc




The goal of the exercise is to start thinking along new lines. Many of the ideas on the list will go straight to the trashcan - but one might be viable and give you a way out of your dilemma.

Additional advice I have heard for this particular exercise is to automatically delete the first three ideas you think of, as they are too trite (not clever enough, the audience will be more satisfied with something that was work for you to come up with.)

  1. Likability: It is very possible to like villains, deserters, traitors. I will again recommend "Lolita." The main character is a child molester. He is the worst man possible. He is most certainly not a role model, or someone you would ever want to be in a room with. But the book is impossible to put down, because he has so developed his own rationale for his crimes and explains them to the reader in such a convincing way, explaining his twisted logic, that the reader becomes drawn into his insanity. There are probably other good examples of compelling villains, in literature and real life. The trick (I believe) is to make the 'unlikeable character's' motivations sound, developed from their life experiences, compelling. Brief example: Your deserter may come to see that the war is unjust - the premise he went to war over is false. And so after a crisis of conscience he realizes he cannot fight anymore. Et cetera. You would ideally provide enough background and internal dialog (or other device) on his part to allow us to understand those motivations.

War crimes

Nobody actually cares. Unless it triggers some past personal trauma, in which case they will be angry at you, not the character.

What people care about is the reasons the character had for doing what they did. Worse the action, better the reason required. And it is what the reader thinks is the reason that matters, so for something like war crimes, you will have to be very clear of the reasons it is done. And unless you like hate mail, the reasons the story needs the war crimes too.

So think about: Why are the war crimes necessary for the story? Why did this character commit them? How do I show those to the reader?

If you can't answer these questions, change the plot.


Same thing. Why does the character desert? How is it shown in the story?

If the readers think the reason was good, they will accept the desertion. If the reason is good enough, they will like the character better for doing it. I think that generally being forced to witness or even participate in war crimes is a good start, you just need to show the reaction the character has to it in enough detail that the reader can follow and understand the decision process.

Return to military

Use the same reason that you used to justify the war crimes. Saves effort and is easier for the reader to understand. Meaning that if the reason is the same the reader is more likely to understand and accept is as a valid reason for both the war crimes and the return to military. It will also create a bond of sorts between the characters, which you probably want.

Possible reasons for war crimes

That's actually the tough part. You need something that makes sense to your audience and oddly enough people have strong negative prejudice against war crimes.

You could start with that the "higher ups" ordered it and make obvious that they are entirely willing and able to have anyone who disobeys them executed for desertion, insubordination, treason or some other crime that is convenient and carries the death penalty during war time.

They are also entirely willing and able to make any actual desertions vanish from record provided the person can be persuaded to "get back to work". Convenient, eh?

You still need the actual reason these crimes are committed that is good enough for people who more or less can control the military. Just saying the higher ups are corrupt and incompetent is just too lazy. It works if those people and their reasons are not important to the story, but if the reason is not important you probably could have replaced those war crimes with something else.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user16226
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 12:22

People will forgive a war crime if the character committing it is NOT motivated by cruelty or hatred or bigotry, but is motivated by some combination of love and logistical necessity.

I don't know your story so I will make up a similar situation:

Suppose my character knows for certain that a terrorist is hiding in a daycare center for toddlers, and the terrorist is a suicide bomber with a backpack nuclear weapon he can detonate at any time. My character can fire missiles into the daycare center and level it and the terrorist. He knows normal explosions will not detonate the nuclear weapon; but would probably leave the area radioactive. He knows he will kill fifty toddlers, parents and teachers. But his choice is the death of millions versus the death of hundreds. He fires his missiles. Does the reader hate him, or sympathize with his impossible decision to kill babies and young mothers and daycare attendants? Suppose his own wife and child were in the daycare center, and he still pulled the trigger? If the author makes it clear the terrorist feels trapped and this is the ONLY way to prevent the nuke from going off, and the MC feels certain his wife and child are about to die either way --- How does the reader feel about him?

I don't think they feel he is irredeemable, even though his act is horrific, and if done out of selfish interest WOULD make him irredeemable. If his motivation was pure, they will forgive him. Yet a far less harmful act could make him irredeemable if done for selfish reason: Say raping an underage girl.

This is true even if the MC decision was based on false information, if he trusted it was true. Suppose in this story, my MC is a pilot, and he does pull the trigger and blow up the daycare and his own wife and child. Then it turns out his information came from a traitor that lied to him and gave him false intel. There was a terrorist threat, but the terrorist was never IN the daycare center, it was blown up because a female US Senator was inside to discuss something about her daughter. The whole thing was a successful assassination plot, and he pulled the trigger on his own family and saved nobody.

Now how does the reader feel about him? Is he redeemable? If he left the military, would they believe he might come back, believing that feeling sorry for himself was just more selfishness and saving others is the only way he can ever justify his existence? That it was this or suicide?

To turn such things into war crimes, the daycare could be a foreign hospital, the senator could be a foreign politician, his wife could be an aid worker at the hospital. You can change things up and have the same plot.

But above the plot is a principle: Motivations determine whether a character is redeemable or a lost cause.

  • I worked a bit on motivations for the soldier making the orders: One is a selfish reason and the other is that the war was dragging on since their colony's creation and the enemy was controlling the food supplies. W/o food, the mc's colony may end up starving. The selfish motivation: being a recovering alcoholic the mc has struggled with trust issues in his far backstory and is happy to be granted a high rank and be fully trusted even if the one trusting him is reckless/ ruthless commander. The trust thing is one of the lies the character believes.
    – BugFolk
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 21:46
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    If you want the 'war crime' forgiveable by the reader, IMO you have to skip the selfish reason. IMO no matter how altruistic a reason might justify the war crime, if there truly is a selfish reason, even a small one, it trumps the altruism. The reader will find him guilty. If you want the reader to embrace a person that has done something horrible and lethal, the reader has to know that person gained nothing from it, not a whit. Now other chars can vilify him and hate him for real reasons ("you killed my son!"), and readers will understand why, but still find the war criminal redeemable.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 23:36
  • What if the war crimes and even the war itself is backstory to the first book? Does that change much? The rough draft I am working on opens up with him contemplating suicide (shame, regret, etc), having a taste of hell (experience his soul being shredded apart), brought back to life and set on a positive change arc to return to the colonies he did wrong to and do what he can to help restore their magic, and work with his adopted child to eventually reset the clock to a time well before the war(s) started.
    – BugFolk
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 3:07
  • He will find out that he is unable to undo all of his mistakes/crimes: it will be his adopted child's burden, which will really weigh on his heart, but he will use his experiences to do what he can to prevent a future war as well as delay other wars from happening. That said, could the reader still like the character even if he really did horrible deeds in his backstory, but is doing what he can to make it right in the current book and series?
    – BugFolk
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 3:18
  • Thought about it some more and I really can't skip the "selfish reason" because that is the driving lie that got the character to this point. His desire te trusted and self loathing got him into the situation of "wow someone trusts me, even if he is ruthless" so his challenge is that he needs to trust himself and his core values, even if that means standing up for what he believes and risk being kicked out of the army for it.
    – BugFolk
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 9:43

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