Self-reflection: Character Vs. Plot

It took me a long time to understand why I didn’t like some books that other people raved about. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, for instance.  (Dale may be writing another blasphemer post after reading this.) I see its strength.  I understand it is impressive in its scope of imagining.  But I didn’t like it and didn’t read the third novel in the series. Let me explain this is unusual for me as the only series I haven’t finished—but which was complete by the author at the time I read it—was one my husband demanded I stop.  He hated hearing about why it was such a bad story.  The Foundation series, though, I just didn’t care to finish.

We all know stories need both character and plot.  I bet we’ve all read the extremes: stories which revolve around character and contain a slight blip for a plot arc, and stories which revolve around plot and contain characters that are more sketched than fleshed out.  I wonder, though, if many of us have taken a look at how character and plot really impact our reading preferences.  Not to mention how our reading preferences and choices impact our writing preferences and choices.

I certainly never did until recently. It’s embarrassing, actually, how long it took for me to realize what hooked me into a book– good, bad, or mediocre.  It’s the character-centeredness of the book.  The Foundation series is event-driven.  Don’t get me wrong– I LOVE action in a book.  I read the Games of Thrones series, what was available of it, years before it became an international phenomenon.  I loved the Da Vinci Code, although I probably would have been more into it if I had read it before the rest of the world announced What A Great Book it was.  It was also very event-driven, but still character-centered.

Characters drive all my stories, now that I think about it, except one.  Well, they drive that exception as well, but the story revolves around an event not the characters.  That’s the story that I never could get to flow.  It’s choppy and confusing in places, and that’s after two workshops and three rewrites, one of which gave it a single character for readers to follow.

I didn’t consciously write an event-centered story; it makes me wonder what would happen if I did.  Would it be any good?  Would I spend as much time staring at the computer screen and cussing out the events that won’t resolve that I spend cussing out the characters who won’t make up their minds?

I want to be the strongest writer I can be.  Of course, I defeat myself in the sheer lack of time I give to my so-called craft.   My goal this summer (when my summer actually starts, in July) is to write a short story different from what I have done in the past.  I think writing an event-driven story would be an interesting challenge for me.

I know the writing stance of a few – very few, sadly – Today’s Author contributors, but little more.  Which are you: an event or character reader?  An event or character writer?  Or both?  What do you like about it?

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11 thoughts on “Self-reflection: Character Vs. Plot

  1. I’m character-driven, through and through. I enjoy developing them and finding out what they have to say, but what I really love about it is that the characters are what help me form the plot, to make the events stronger. Knowing this, I try to take more care when writing action scenes because my character focus makes me prone to dragging these fast-paced scenes into long philosophical conversations.

    I think a good story has balanced elements of both character and plot. You can’t take one out. If plot is the board, then the characters are the chess pieces. We writers have to step out of our comfort zones to make sure we’re not neglecting the one we are weaker in!

    • I’ve found that too – that character-focus can hijack an action scene and turn it into a slow-motion event rather than fast-paced event.

  2. Definitely character-driven. You can have a good story with plenty of action, but if the characters don’t move me; don’t make me love them, hate them, care about them, then you may as well forget it. Oh, by the way, I hated Foundation series too, and I usually enjoy Asimov.

    • So glad I’m not the only one on Foundation. Didn’t think I would be…but so many people I know adore the series.

  3. I think you are more likely to get a “blasphemer!” response from me related to the Foundation series. It is one of my favorite series of all time. But to each his or her own I suppose.

    Sitting here thinking about it, my stories tend to be character-driven, but not usually to the point where I’ve got a bunch of really cool characters who don’t do anything. Well, at least not usually. I’ll get a cool character idea then I’ll start sticking them in situations or events to see how they respond. If it goes well, a story gets written; if it goes poorly, nothing gets written. Sometimes I’ll have an interesting event come to mind and then I’ll start creating cool characters to play in those events.

    Ultimately, it is a combination for me, but I know it usually starts with the characters.

    With respect to the Foundation series, yes it is event driven… but I look at it as a study of how society as a whole and then how individuals and smaller groups within the society react to the events. There are seven books in the series and each one centers on a different part of the overarching event (the collapse of the galactic empire) and the reaction to it by the characters and the predictability and manipulability of those reactions. The main character (as I see it) in this series is Humanity or Human Society. The rise of The Foundation is set against the fall of The Empire and both are set within and around the science of Psychohistory, wherein there’s this concept of the infallibility of The Seldon Plan as well as the assumption that the localized, individual trials and tribulations and failures and disasters (etc.) are inevitable and even required in order to guide the mass inertia of society as a whole onto the right path.

    Every time I read this series I enjoy it more. I think I’m going to have to read it again very soon.

    • Rob, ultimately it was the fact that the human race was more or less treated as the central character that lost me in the series. I wanted a character as stand-in for the human race so I could follow the person, but that would have changed what Asimov was doing with this particular project. I respect the focus of the novels, just couldn’t create the connection to it.

  4. I’ve heard it said that literary fiction is driven by characters, while genre fiction is driven by events.

    Like most publishing bromides, this is probably an unwarranted generalization.

  5. My stories are character driven – how a person with these traits responds to this situation. I like reading all kinds of stories but the ones I read over and over are character driven, and the authors whose body of work I seek, write character driven stories. That said, a book cannot be nothing but a description of a character’s weird or wonderful personality. It must have action and take the reader along for the journey. Often that forces the primary character to confront his personality and make a significant change.

    • Shari, it’s such a frustrating balance from a writing perspective, isn’t it? I love/hate trying to show the character’s personality without breaking the plot into too many blotchy bits. On the other hand, without the character’s personality, the plot just feels stiff, lifeless. Yet it’s a personal journey, finding that balance. One of the things I love about reading other people’s work is seeing how they balanced that particular project.

  6. I’m mainly a character-driven writer. When I read books, I like first-person stories because they see through a character’s eyes. One series that I loved reading, for example, was the Maximum Ride books. I hated some of the plot points, but seeing through Max’s ‘filter’ gave me some real perspective on things.

    When I write, my fighting scenes end up slow and wordy because I tend to describe my characters while they fight. But I love getting into my character’s heads, trying to see how they react to different things. They are what keep my story going, even when the plot is falling to pieces.

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