Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven

Warning: This post may be a bit rambly and confusing.

It’s one of those where I’m going to be thinking as I type, trying to figure out a few things. I can’t tell you yet whether the post will end with a conclusion or a questions. Or a dozen questions. Oh, well. Feel free to come along for the ride.

As a reader, I’m all about character–in terms of WHY I’m in the book. I love to lose myself in personalities–the people who are quirky, angry, effervescent, stuck, free, stubborn, searching…you name it. And I love to see all these personalities come into contact with each other: interaction and conflict. The dynamics of any mix you want to throw together on the page–that’s what I want to read about.

Which means that, as a reader, I want the plot done really well. I do NOT want to be aware of it. I don’t want something so convoluted and tricky that I get caught up in WHAT is happening and pulled away from WHO it’s happening to. Yes, of course, I’ve read strongly plotted books, and I’ve loved them–I can admire the author, and I get caught up in a great story, just like anyone else. But…if I have to pick, I’d rather get caught up in the characters.

I think this is one reason I like mysteries. I know–here’s the rambly, confusing part. Mysteries ARE plot, right? But, in general, the basics of that plot are steps I know: Murder or some other crime occurs. Detective takes on case. Detective hunts down clues, bugs people, eavesdrops and breaks into necessary buildings. Detective gets close, gets beat up or shot at, wonders despairingly if this is THE case that will finally stump her. Detective gets the last piece of the puzzle, adds it all up, and catches the bad guy. Detective probably solves or moves to a new place on some personal problem as well. Yes, I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, because a good detective story is much more than these parts, but you know what I mean. If the author is a strong writer, you’re watching and thinking about the specific details of a plot you know, not working to follow the pattern of the plot.

My first book is a mystery. I loved writing it. Because–guess what? As a writer, plot is not my strength. (Anyone else see a connection here?) When I wasn’t sure where to go next, what to make happen, I’d look at the suspects and think about who my MC needed to investigate next. I’d think about the last clue and see where my hero needed to follow it. Had he been open and direct in his last attempt to solve the crime? Maybe it was time for some sneakiness. Because I knew that basic plot of the mystery, I was able to play with voice and humor and adventure and an irritating sidekick.

Of course, that book hasn’t sold.

This new book, the YA historical, is so different. It’s going to be one of those other books–the ones with characters you love and love to hate. It’s going to be one where the personalities clash, where the people struggle with trying to make their relationship work and pretty much fail, and all those conflicts along the way.

Do you see how dull that paragraph sounds? That’s because, yes, without plot, character is…meh. And see that last phrase…”all those conflicts?” Yeah, tell me about those conflicts.

No, really, please. Tell me about those conflicts. Give me some plot, will you?

I always hear that, in a character-driven novel, the actions and problems arise out of…yes, you got it: character. What a character will do in any given situation comes from that character’s personality. Yes, those things I love so much as a reader. But in terms of writing about them–well, it feels so much more like guesswork. When I was writing the mystery, I could say to myself: “Self, MC needs to find out about Bad-Guy #3.” Then self would go off and write  about MC “finding out,” making sure MC did that in his own special way.

In this character-driven book, I’m more like, “Self: MC needs to….???????!!!!!!!??????!!!!!!” With a few $*(%#*(#%))#@# thrown in for good measure.

Obviously, the idea of a plot-driven book as a separate thing from a character-driven book is some kind of joke.

Because, yes, we all really know it. Plot and character are so NOT separate issues. The plot does depend on who your hero and your bad guys and your sidekicks are. And the character does completely depend on what happens in this particular story about these particular people. And clearly, just because I’m not writing a mystery, and it’s not obvious that this MC has to go follow that guy down the alley and listen in on his conversation with the elephant trainer–I still need that plot to help figure out my characters.

I guess the conclusion (yay!) is that I have some more learning to do. I guess each book we take on, if we’re lucky, makes that demand on us–to push past the stage of the writing craft we’ve made it to so far, to stretch ourselves to take on the next thing we need to figure out. As tough as this is, as frustrating as it can be, I think it’s also where some of our hope has to lie. If there is more we can do, more craft we can practice, then our writing can get stronger. Better.

So here’s to plot and character. And, appropriately enough for a Monday, here’s to all the torture and agony they cause us!

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3 thoughts on “Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven

  1. Hi, Fabulous Becky! I know that our beloved Plot Whisperer Martha Alderson will be touring your blog tomorrow, so, I’ll come by then. Today, Martha is touring my blog and we’re having so much fun. Could you swing by http://lovemadeofheart.com/blog/writers-invited-to-camp-out-here-the-plot-whisperer-martha-alderson-to-arrive-october-18-2011-on-blog-tour/ and say “Hi”? Thanks! xoxo Writing Career Coach Teresa LeYung-Ryan

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  2. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I did build the conflict in my first book that way, on the characters’ weaknesses. I had a character with a secret, so naturally there was pressure on him to reveal it–someone who found out the truth, and then another situation where his own behavior almost gave him away, etc. In a plot like that, it’s inevitable the truth will come out; how and when and what will happen then, become the questions. I also had a girl who tended to jealousy being tested by her boyfriend’s difficulty in getting over his previous relationship, and so on.
    In my second book, a guy who tends to be withdrawn encounters a girl who’s very outgoing. She’s constantly testing his boundaries.
    Never let the characters get too comfortable. 😉

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  3. Thank you. I think her book will help me too, it is so easy to get caught up in rabbit trails away from the plot – but then you need more than a straight from point a to point z, no side journeys. Hard balancing act. I am subscribing to your site to follow.

    Have a blessed day.
    Heather

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