Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Who....or the What?

There was a discussion somewhere out there in cyberland recently...and no, I don't remember where....about which is more important to a novel, the characters or the plot. So I was happy to see a post yesterday on the Murderati blog by the author J.D. Rhoades called Driven by Desire that discusses this very thing. And best of all, he agrees this me!
“Writers and critics talk sometimes about "plot-driven" versus "character-driven" fiction.  I've always thought it was a false dichotomy, however. In my opinion, character drives plot. Or to be more specific, characters have desires, and it's desire that drives plot....

Figure out what each of your characters wants, both in the short term and in the long term. In real life, people  want more than one thing, and the same should be true in your fiction.  For example, the main character may want to rule the world, he may also want to get the girl. For each character, then, write out:  what are their deepest desires?  What will they do to achieve them? Will they have to sacrifice one desire to achieve another?”

To me, ever story, of every genre, is about the characters. Even suspense stories, which some might say are the most plot driven stories. Isn't a mystery all about the plot, you may say? Well, speaking as a reader, not a writer, I would say no. Sure, a good plot is very important and there is little I enjoy more than a good suspense book with a really clever plot. I wrote about that in a review recently, that a good suspense writer can led you to think you have it all figured out and just when you are patting yoursef on the back, the author just pulls that rug out from under you....excellent!

But...I think that what then take that book up a notch, and it is a big notch, what take that from just a pretty good mystery to really good fiction, to really good writing, is the character development. We have to become vested in these people, we have to understand them, like them, care about them and care about what they do and what happens to them. In the case of the villain, we have to hate them. But even that should not be so simple, so one dimensional.
“Keep in mind as well that, in the words of the famous quote, "no one is a villain in his own eyes." The antagonist, if he's not a maniacally cackling, hand rubbing cartoon villain, has reasons for his actions which seem perfectly logical and consistent to him, even if they may not seem that way to the reader. Or, as I put it, the villain thinks he's the hero.”

This whole issue of the characters came to mind as I was reading a mystery novel recently. No, I did not write a review of it, I didn't have the heart too. I had read a number of non-fiction books by this same writer over the years and I enjoyed them a great deal. She is a very good writer and she can tell a great story. But the difference was that in her non-fiction, she was telling true stories. Or, I assume, fairly true stories. The plot, the character were there, for her to organize and describe and share with us and she is very good at that. But when she wrote this mystery...well, the plot was not awful. It was not “pull the rug from under you” great but it was ok. The overriding problem was the main character....or actually all the characters. There was never a sense that you knew this person, and to the degree that you just didn't care. You were not vested in them...There was no sense that “our hero” was real to the author, so of course he was not real to us.

And I see this most often in suspense novels that are part of a series. The characters have to grow, we have to get to know them better in each book of the series and care about what they do and what happen to them, or the series just starts to die. The best plot will not save them for long.

So yes, I think in a real way, a novel is all about the characters. Ok, not 'all' maybe but a mediocre plot can be rescued by great characters while I suggest that a good plot will not really grab and hold us with poor least not for long.


  1. I love good characters, too. I love a book with good dialogue and you have to have good characters for that.

  2. Yep...good characters, with snappy patter.
    And ideally in a really cool location.

  3. You are certainly welcome...I always enjoy the posts over on Murderati.

  4. I agree with you. I start out choosing a book because the "story" sounds good but the characters are what seem to keep me going. I love it when an author can get me to actually create an image in my head for each character,so well that if a movie were to be made for the book you can already pick who should play each person.

  5. excpet they usually pick the wrong people!

  6. I've just been writing about this idea in a post about memoirs which I'm hoping to finish and post tonight. I agree with your last sentence entirely.

  7. Well, at least you agree with one! ;-)

  8. LOL! Let me rephrase that!

    I agreed with all of it, but the last sentence especially struck a chord.


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