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?


A how-to guide for starting the next intergalactic war

I fear I’m about to start the next intergalactic war by making the following statement:  I am not a fan, nor do I highly recommend reading Douglas Adams’ book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Wait!  Before you energize your photon light sword thingamajigs, just hear me out!

It seems science fiction was never really my cup of tea.

I believe my first taste of science fiction likely came in the form of a toy included within a McDonald’s Happy Meal in 1983.  What else would have prompted an impressionable six-year-old to want to see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in the movie theaters?  Although now thirty years later, my only memories of that franchise are of an icy-cold air-conditioned movie house, a 16-oz white plastic commemorative soda cup in which the silkscreened characters wore off after three washes, and a glossy-covered activity sticker-book.

In the late eighties, as I entered my ‘tween years, I recall painful memories of being trapped in the house on rainy Saturday afternoons, channel-surfing across old television shows like Buck Rogers and the original Star Trek series.  Snore.  This was boring stuff for a nine year old that would rather be outside riding his bicycle.

A few more years passed until the fall of 1991.  I was a freshman in high school and now afforded the liberty of non-chaperoned trips to the mall with friends on Friday and Saturday nights.  That’s when I first discovered the book.  Nestled mid-way back of a small bookshop was a book title that jumped out in front of me and shook me for attention:  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Somewhat intrigued, I picked the book up off the shelf and read the synopsis on the back cover.  Seems interesting, I thought, but not today.

Over the next twenty years The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to haunt me dozens of times.  There were references in television programs, strategic placement on library bookshelves intended to catch my eye, and of course, casual conversion.  But by this point in my life I was pretty certain science fiction wasn’t the genre for me.  After all, at the time it seemed just about every science fiction story involved spaceships, lasers, and smugglers, right?

It wasn’t until five years ago I was browsing bookshelves to pick up a story or two for an upcoming vacation, when again the same book title jumped out and shook me.  Something was different, however.  This time I thought, everyone I’ve heard over the years who gave this book a rave review can’t be wrong, can they? For twenty years I’ve never heard anything but good reviews for this book.  That’s it, I’m buying it!

I proceeded to read the book on the plane as I journeyed down to Florida.  It kept my interest with its quirky humor, sure.  But looking back, I can’t help but recall feeling there was so much more Douglas Adams could have done with the story.  Many of the book’s conflicts felt rushed.  There was the setup to great action and conflict that could have been drawn out for pages and pages, but instead was wrapped up and resolved in a page and a half.  I also felt I didn’t really get to know the characters.  To me, that was extremely disappointing.

As a writer, I self-discovered two lessons by reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  First, I learned that if I ever write a high-intensity scene—like where a character might get sucked out of a spaceship—to really work hard to draw out the action over several pages or an entire chapter.  Second, I learned creating a plot outline beforehand may help narrow the scope of the story’s plot.

But as a reader, I learned there’s more to science fiction than spaceships, lasers, and smugglers.