On Writing

Plot vs. Characterization

It’s an age-old war. Is it crucial to get the plot points right? To get the action from Point A to B to C in a way that is exciting and dynamic and interesting? Or is it more crucial for the reader to care about the characters? Does a book get too plodding and slow if you spend time meandering with the characters in it?

I’m a person who loves a good plot. Primarily, my favorite type of fiction is the very intricate mystery/crime fiction that has so many twists and turns that you can’t see the ending coming. Trying to put the pieces together is so fascinating to me. It’s like one huge jigsaw puzzle. As each piece is put into place, finally, the picture becomes clear.

But you don’t generally don’t care about characters in a book like that. Other than the famous chronicled detectives and their partners in crime, is there really any character from Agatha Christie’s books who stands out? You could easily take Thora Gray from The ABC Murders and replace her with Rosalie Otterbourne from Death on the Nile. It would make no difference to the book. The plot determines all. Characters are only relevant insofar as they advance the plot. Lord A provides the country house. Dashing archeologist B provides the dig and the parasols. Even the detectives themselves are more defined by quirks and outward appearances that by what makes them tick or what drives them. They don’t grow and change all that much. A Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes mystery is much like any other in their canon.

But try taking Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and putting Anne Elliot of Persuasion in her place instead. The book falls apart. Elizabeth’s forthright, independent, prideful character is crucial to the message and drive of the book and of her relationship with Fitzwilliam Darcy, even as much as Anne Elliot’s reticence and people-pleasing nature drives the plot of hers. The characterization is woven into the book itself and is crucial to what makes it all hang together.

But the plots of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion involve small pieces of life. In the great scheme of things, a romance is a rather small fragment of a large universe. A tiny world where the pieces of the plot are rather ordinary and not very exciting. “Mission Impossible”, they are not.

But the characters are real and breathe and have life in a way that no Agatha Christie novel chooses to address.

As a writer, I like both. I like exciting plots that put characters in perilous situations and make the reader think and puzzle and try to figure out what is happening.

But you must care about the characters who are in these situations or you end up with a situation where the stakes are lowered precisely because you don’t care whether the characters survive.

It’s a delicate balance.

And a challenge I relish as a writer.

One of the ways I think works best to handle both is to have a series. You can make each book have a tight plot–perhaps a mystery to provide the structure and to propel the book forward. But then over the course of the series, you can bring in small character scenes and develop people who would normally be a throwaway character in book 1, but who become crucial to the main characters’ survival in book 7.

It also is a reward to those readers who picked up your book with book 1. They get the rich reward of the development of character and the progression of relationships–whether romantic or not–and each book’s plot will drive the stakes higher because you become invested in the world that these characters inhabit. Because it’s real and breathing and peppered with people who have lives and secrets and hopes and dreams and fears.

It’s why people love Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. The stakes are high. The characters are rich and deep and intriguing. And the breadth of the series allows for an entangled web of a world to grow, to live and to thrive.

Writing like this mirrors our own world in its fascinating complexity. We resonate with it in a way that with more superficial plots or characters, we cannot.

It invites. It beckons. It promises.

Because you know, deep in your heart, that there’s a world beyond the veil. A magical place just out of our reach that we can’t see. It calls to us when we’re least expecting it.

From an ordinary letter delivered in a most extraordinary way to a dusty old wardrobe in a distracted professor’s house. The hint of something more. More to the world. More to the reasons behind what happens in the universe. More to what makes people tick themselves.

There is always more.

It is just up to us to find it.

Writing the “more”. The best of all worlds.

3 Comments

  • Mary Allen

    More – my favorite! 🙂

    I have to be invested in the characters or I get bored. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that I “like” them – I wouldn’t want Hannibal Lecter coming over for fava beans. But I was fascinated by him and wondering what he would do, or say, next.

    In the same spirit that those loud, noisy, cliched action movies bore me, A book can have an interesting plot, but I give up on it long before it’s finished if I don’t care if anybody lives or dies.

    • Julia

      I totally agree with Mary. I love a plot with twists and turns, but if the characters don’t engage me, I lose interest pretty quickly. I like mysteries too, Susan, but if they combine character and plot, like Louise Penny, then I love them.

      Maybe that’s why romantic suspense is a fave of mine. The characters and the plot work together.

  • Dana

    As a writer and reader, I officially like both. I am always in awe of writers who can carry out intricate plots, with twists and turns. I long to be that writer. I am also always in awe of writers who can paint a portrait of a flawed character that I can care about.

    Few writers can do both.

    But if I am to look over the body of reading I have embraced/endured, most of the ones I’ve unabashedly enjoyed are plot driven. Those I’ve thrown across, the room? Character studies. Reading Jane Austen makes me want to shoot myself in the head. I tried reading no less than six of her books. Couldn’t get past the third chapter of any of them,

    Of course, there must be some crossover. I can absolutely get through a plot-driven book, no problem. But if I don’t care about the characters? I probably won’t pick up a book by that author again.

    And I can get through a character-driven book if there’s enough action to carry the characters along to the end. Will I read another book by that author? Maybe. If the writing is compelling enough.

    But if I absolutely have to chose? I chose plot.

    I just wish I could write good plots!

    Hay, maybe that’s why that’s what I desire? Hmmmmm…

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