Monday, August 16, 2010

Plot or Characters

Plot versus characters is a little like the old chicken and the egg question. To many readers It's not a matter of which comes first though, but which is more important. For me, plot might just have a little edge, but no matter how great the plot, I never am satisfied with a book peopled by crummy characters.

Plot is vital to me; I've never really enjoyed the kind of novel where the angst-filled protagonist flirts with insanity, struggles with some kind of mental complex, or grapples with depression if that is the main crux of the story. Many literary novels take a character and build an entire book around the character's inner emotional struggle. These same problems are fine character attributes if there's a plot to the story too. Other writers concentrate so heavily on action and plot twists, the characters are the same at the end as the beginning and the reader has no idea who they are. Many readers and writers seem to think a novel should be all action or all inner character development. The best novels in my opinion are those where the characters become real to the reader and grow and learn through the course or events of the story. One of the nicest compliments I ever received was from a reader who said when she finished reading When Tomorrow Comes she felt she should call up George and Jacey and invite them to dinner.

So how do we create characters that feel real? Some writers, including me, take a sheet of paper, put the character's name at the top, then list eye color, hair color, physical details such as height, weight, where and when the person was born, where went to school, employment record, parents, siblings, hobbies, likes, dislikes, and everything else that identifies that person. One romance writer who spoke at a conference I attended said she goes to a doll-maker who makes a doll from her description of her heroine and she keeps the doll on her desk while writing her story. Another says she hunts through magazines and clips out pictures that fit her idea of each character and tacks them to a board by her desk. The important things is a character must be firmly entrenched in the writer's mind if there is to be any hope of the character being real to the reader.

I commented once in a review that an author's heroine didn't feel real and she sent me an angry email telling me how real the character was because she was actually herself. I suspect she read much more into the actual words she wrote than her readers possibly could. Most writers, unless they're writing an autobiography, don't project themselves well into their novels because our characters seem to take on better or worse attributes than we actually possess. In one of my early books I thought I was using myself as a model for a character and wound up seriously wounding my ego as I got letters from several readers saying how much they loved the book, but they disliked that character.

Another conference speaker once advised the audience not to create "stupid heroines." I've always considered that good advice. She also said our heroines need to be strong in their own right and shouldn't have to be rescued by a "man or a miracle." More good advice. On the other hand, I dislike wimpy heroes who can't get anything right either.

It's possible to have the best characters in the world and still have a poor story. Something has to happen or there's no story. That something needs to place the protagonist or someone he/she cares about in danger, be a changing point in the main character's life, or in some way present a puzzle to be solved. There's a good reason why the major genres appeal to readers. It's because the characters are pitted against a major challenge they must defend against, outwit, or in some way overcome. In a well-written novel the reader identifies with the antagonist and pits her/his own reasoning and skills against the problem, gaining a sense of achievement as the problem is solved whether it's defeating the bad guys, planning a wedding, or moving forward with renewed purpose.

I freely admit I like a book with an intricate plot and strong characters. I read all kinds of books, but I prefer action and a well thought out plots whether the story takes place now or in the historical past. I've read and enjoyed some books in almost every genre, but I quickly become bored with mythical characters, unreal worlds, and magical potions, and the frenzied attempt some writers make to be meaner, bloodier, or more shocking than anyone else. Shock is not a substitute for plot. Whatever genre I pick up I want characters I can like and believe in and a problem with challenging twists and turns.

Okay, I've expressed my feelings about plot and characters, I'd like to know how other writers view these two important components of writing, and more importantly, I'd like to hear from readers about whether you consider plot and characters of equal importance or does one matter more than the other? I'll do two drawings on August 31. One will include only those who make thoughtful comments on this topic and the other will include everyone who comments and those who are followers. Oh, and I think I'll call my contests simply Wish List one or two. That makes this one Wish List Two since it's the second one this month.

10 comments:

Karey said...

Great post. A good book needs a balance--one without the other isn't worth reading. And I completely agree that a stupid heroine makes for a hard book to enjoy.

Lisa said...

Plot may move the story along but I've put down more than one book because I didn't like the characters. I expect a certain amount of normalcy, quirkiness is okay in fact even desired but when characters act outside their own norms I quickly lose interest. The best plots can be forgetable if you don't remember the main characters.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

I can think of a few books with great plots that I didn't enjoy because I didn't like the characters. There needs to be a good balance I think.

Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen said...

Personnally, I enjoy a good balance between plot and character that "seems" and "feels" real, no matter what the genre. But I also know that whatever the book, it needs to try to fit its genre. If it doesn't, its readers won't be pleased. Good and insightful post.

Britt said...

It totally depends on the book for me. Some really great books are totally plot driven, some are totally character driven. But at least one of the two must be done really well!

Michael Knudsen said...

Spot on. As a writer, I start wiht plot, but my characters tend to want to pull things their own way. It takes a lot of self-control and practice to know when to rein them in and when to let them go. It's a symbiotic relationship.

Kelsi Rose said...

As a reader, I like characters a little more. I Have read many books where the plot has started to wane and I pushed through, just to see how the characters ended up.

I rarely not finish a book. I can think of only a few that I have put down and walked away from. It is mostly because the characters don't don't make me care enough to go on their journey with them.

Elizabeth Morgan said...

I think the plot is important part because what happens is what makes the characters who they are..

violettes said...

It has to have both. I've read some books where I just can't deal with the "sloppy" characters and it ruins what was a promising plot. I've also read books where I connect with characters and want something to happen but by the end of the (disappointing) books there just isn't a sustainable plot, just a series of events. Both of those varities are the books I don't recommend to others and don't read again. Any book I enjoy reading once I can enjoy reading again--it's like getting together with an old friend--but those must have both elements. Growing up my Grandma always sent me The Mormon Author for teens... His books always drove me NUTS. They were full of generalizations and Wasatch Front "lingo" even when the stories were supposedly taking place in other parts of the country. Argh!

Gregg said...

Excellent post, Jennie. I agree with the other comments on achieving a good balance between plot and character. Along those lines, the plot and characters need to be true to who/what they are. If a heroine is a doctor of medicine, then any reference to medicine, chemistry, hospital procedure, etc. should be accurate. The same holds true if they are a pilot, a teacher, or whatever.