Wednesday, August 18, 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? Anyone who leaves a thoughtful comment will be included in the Wish List drawing on my blog


Anna Buttimore said...

Interesting - something I'd not thought about before. For my current work I actually developed the characters by going through the actors on IMDB and deciding who would play each character in the movie version. Then I copied and pasted the photos at the top of the manuscript. Of course that only gives you the face and rough age, but I've found it helpful.

Lynn Gardner said...

I'm with you, Jennie. Great characters and intriguing plot is the formula for a successful story. And you have it down pat! :) Hugs, Lynn