Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Plot vs. Character

I'm actually somewhat ahead of schedule on the project that's due next week. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you actually devote the time to it. I survived the return to ballet. Tonight, it's back to choir.

Now that the holidays are over, it's time to go back to the bi-weekly writing posts. Every other Wednesday, I post about some topic related to writing. If you want to receive these posts by e-mail, you can subscribe here. I'm always taking questions or suggestions, so if there's something you want to know about writing craft, the publishing business or the life of a writer, let me know. You can get all the posts I made up to the end of last year in one convenient PDF file, which you can get here.

When writers talk about the way they work, they often describe themselves as "character-driven" or "plot-driven." Or you may hear a particular author's books described that way. What does that mean?

Some writers use these terms to talk about their process. They say they're character-driven if they dream up characters first and then build a plot around them. They may not even develop a plot, instead just going where the characters take them. Plot-driven writers come up with the plot first, then create characters to fill out that plot. Most writers fall somewhere in the middle, or it may vary depending on the book. Some stories may start with characters, others with plots or situations. Generally, plot and character are so intertwined that there's no way to really tell what came first. It all comes at the same time. This is the only kind of story you could tell involving these particular people, or these are the only people who could be in this particular plot.

These terms can also refer to what moves the story forward. A plot-driven story is one in which the story is moved forward by events external to the characters. A character-driven story is one in which the characters' choices and actions move the story forward. For an example of an almost purely plot-driven story, there are the CSI-type shows on television. Except in the Very Special episodes where the case is personal to one of the characters, you could swap out most of the main characters with entirely different people without changing the main story. The dialogue and character interactions would be different and the tone would be different, but the main plot wouldn't vary much because the decisions the main characters make aren't exactly character-defining. When a dead body is found, the detectives will choose to investigate (until we get to CSI Waco, where the detective might see who the victim is and say, "Aw, never mind. He needed killin'."), they'll choose to collect evidence, run tests and interview suspects, which will lead them to the killer. Just about any character who'd be in that kind of story would make the same decisions, leading to the same plot progression and the same outcome.

A character-driven story would be something like the TV series The Gilmore Girls or like a lot of romance or women's fiction novels. The story is kicked off by a character making a choice, taking an action or saying something. The other characters react to that with their own actions, and then everyone reacts to that reaction. If you changed the characters, you'd get an entirely different story because different people would react in different ways to the same situation.

Most stories fall somewhere in the middle, with a mix of external events and character choices. There are events that characters react to, and their reactions define them while setting off other events. The police procedural detective may choose to focus on specific bits of evidence or may choose to ignore the evidence and go with his gut. The romance character may have to deal with storms, car accidents, losing a job, pregnancy or other events.

The important thing to remember is that neither end of this continuum is automatically superior. Which approach is best depends on the story you're trying to tell, your genre, the audience you're writing for and the way your mind works. I think sometimes there's an impression that character-driven writing is more "worthy." That's probably because literary fiction is generally considered by a lot of people who talk about books to be superior to commercial fiction or of a higher quality, and commercial fiction tends to require some kind of plot, while literary fiction may just be about a character's inner journey, with no real plot structure.

This sometimes leads to the notion that if the story is plot-driven, that means the characters are weaker than those in character-driven stories, but I don't think this is the case at all. Even in a plot-driven story, you can have strong, sympathetic, dynamic, vivid, three-dimensional characters. You may even find that it's the characters that draw people into a plot-driven story. My books tend to fall on the plot end of the spectrum. I usually come up with the situation and main plot first, then populate it with characters (which then does affect how the plot plays out), and I think most of the plots in my books are event-driven. Yet my strength as a writer seems to be in developing characters that readers fall in love with, and the vast majority of my reader mail is about how much people love my characters. It's the characters and not the events that keep the readers coming back for more. The plot vs. character thing is really just about my thought process and has nothing to do with reader perceptions.

I say this a lot, but this is yet another area where the best way to go is what works for you. Trying to force yourself to write one way just because you think that's better, regardless of what's good for your story or the natural way you work, probably won't be successful for you.

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