Thursday, May 10, 2012

Plot vs. Character What Do You Think?

I've been thinking a lot about plot vs. character lately.  My most recent example is the Castle over-arc of Beckett's mother's murder.  When I wrote on Tuesday that I loved the step forward we'd taken in Beckett and Castle's relationship and I didn't really care about the mom's murder stuff tacked on at the end, I started to analyze that.

Setting aside the fact that I believe the writers have drawn the murder "mystery" out too long and provided such clues as "you don't know who you're dealing with,"  and "this is so much bigger than you imagine," without actually giving any backing so it seems silly now, I think that the original premise was good.  But the reason I tune into Castle is for Beckett, Castle, Ryan and Esposito.  And when I thought back to my favorite books I realized that while I loved a great plot, it really was about loving the characters for me and wanting to know more about what was going on in their lives and how they were going to deal with it.  (Another great TV show that did that was 24.  The plots were fast-moving and sometimes silly (hello, remember the cougar and Kim? Haha, good times)  but we tuned in to see what was happening to Jack Bauer and how he was dealing with things.

When I brought this up to an author friend of mine, she disagreed with me to some extent.  "Without a great plot, who cares about the characters?" she said.  So, then I thought about how I would feel if we just tuned in to see the mystery of the week for Castle, or maybe I just read about Sadie Hoffmiller's neighbor being murdered without learning anything about her kids, her boyfriend, or anything else.  And I decided that for me, the characters are the most important thing because if you don't have likable, relatable characters, you don't have anything to make the reader care about the plot.  You could have the greatest plot in the world, but if you have flat characters, I don't believe you will find an audience that will care.  I think audiences like to be transported to someone else's life, to see their trials and how they're dealt with and for a moment, live vicariously.

I know I could do better at this in my own writing.  I like to think I write stories with great twisting plots that take people away to foreign places and hurtle them through events intertwined with people that leave the reader breathless.  Now I'm thinking I need to dig deeper into my characters and show how, in any given situation, my hero is worth rooting for.

What do you think?  Plot or character?  How can you balance both?


Randy said...

Stories are ultimately about character because they all explore the human condition in one way or another. Which is not to say that a cool concept or exceptional plot cannot be the draw to a particular story, but they mean nothing without a character to explore the various facets of what the author has created.

At least that's my thought on the topic.

Rebecca H. Jamison said...

I prefer a character-driven novel, but I think the best novels combine great characters and great plots. I've been trying really hard to be better at plotting.

I agree with you on Castle. I was talking to my husband about the same thing. It makes me wonder if the writers really know where they're going with this. It seems like they don't know how it's going to end.

Lindzee said...

I think even the most likable character in the world isn't interesting enough to keep my attention if all she does is laundry and dishes, and I think the most exciting plot in the world won't keep my attention if I don't have strong feelings towards the characters involved. Because I don't think you necessarily have to make your readers LIKE your characters (unless its the protagonist maybe), you just have to make them have a strong emotion towards the character. I've kept reading books before because I hate the character and have to see what they do next. In fact, my favorite book of all time is Gone With the Wind and for about 90% of the book I really really really hate Scarlett. As far as how to balance the two...I think it depends on your audience. Some genres are more plot-driven while others are more character-driven. That's my two cents on the matter. :)

Melanie Goldmund said...

Like Rebecca, I think the best books combine great plots and great characters. I don't know if I can say anything about balancing, yet, because I'm not sure that I, as a writer, have reached the point yet where I can give advice. The only thing I know is that when I'm reading, if there's too much character and scarcely any plot, I get bored, and if there's too much plot and scarcely any character, I get bored, too.

Does anybody here watch Fringe? Now that is a good example of great plotting and great characters! And so was Firefly, for all your Nathan Fillion fans out there. :-)

Debra Erfert said...

Yep, I don't think I can add anything to what Mel, Lindzee, Rebecca, and Randy said, really. Without a good plot, you don't need the characters. And, without lovable/hatable characters, who cares about the plot?

C. Michelle Jefferies said...

I guess for me there is no real seperation between character and plot where the main storyline is involved.

You see, plot is what you are doing to the character to up the stakes. The character arc is what the characters do in reaction to you raising those stakes. Together they are this tightly woven thread that if unwound falls flat because of the interdependancy. If every scene in your MS is either the action of plot or the reaction of character you should never have a dull chapter. Unless your characters reaction is to go to sleep. One thing I think some authors miss is that every major character has to have a character arc and motivation. Sometimes thier motivations aren't anything to do with the main plot either, but it must give the story forward motion.

Well that's my 2 cents. :)

Jon Spell said...

Have any of you ever read Anne Tyler? There's very little plot, it seems, and a cornucopia of freakish characters who retain enough normalcy to be relatable.

I mostly enjoy mysteries, so the plot is kind of important to me. It's more fun, though, to have memorable characters. Myron Bolitar, sports agent with a knack for detective work, really works for me. (Along with a supporting cast of highly improbably people.)

Regarding Castle: it's the Lost phenomenon. Just as "Reality" TV shows are taking over, modern dramas seem to need a long-term story arc that keeps viewers hooked. IMO, Castle doesn't need the hook - they have the romantic tension to keep you tuned in. Consider how little airtime the whole conspiracy got over this past season; it's hard to give it any weight. (Like Red John on the Mentalist.) Now, if you want to see a show where the conspiracy is integral to the plot, try Awake. (Jon's weekly plug for this underwatched show.) There's an accident (that was no accident) and at least 2 players involved in the conspiracy and what the frak is going on with his head?

KaseyQ said...

I think it's a delicate balance between the two- I think that the plot is the hook that gets you interested in the characters, but I think a book must have strong characters to carry that plot through. If you think about it, in real life we're always fascinated by crazy news stories, but those stories only get longevity if they're tied to someone interesting. Like "Octomom"- if she had just been a nice lady who had her 8 kids and then faded into the background, she would have been a flash on a headline and that would be it. But because she has such an outlandish personality, people can't get enough of her. The same with reality tv stars- they have no plot, but they have loads of personality.

I just finished the book Eragon, and the first 2/3 of it was very plot-driven. I just wasn't connecting with Eragon, but I stuck around because the plot was okay. Toward the end, though, I began to feel invested in Eragon and Saphira as their relationship grew and as Eragon started to come into his own and face some real character challenges. Now that I've finished the book, I want to read the next one. Yes, the plot is good, but at this moment I can't really remember where it left off right off the top of my head. I can remember that I care about Eragon and I want to know what's going to happen to him and Saphira.

Good topic for pondering! :-)

KaseyQ said...
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Julie Coulter Bellon said...

What a great discussion! Thank you for your thoughts everyone. It's given me a lot to think about since it is a delicate balance. I'm still leaning toward it being 60/40 though on the side of characters. I mean, look at Twilight for example. What was the plot in that really? It all seemed to come down to Edward/Jacob in the end. (And Bella of course.) Maybe I need to keep pondering . . . :)

And I totally agree with you Rebecca, they don't know where they're going with her mom's murder conspiracy. But I'll still tune in. :)

Melanie Conklin said...

I must connect with a character to care about what happens to them. This is one of my biggest complaints about novels that start right in the middle of action, where the MC's life is already on the line.

How am I supposed to worry and sweat it out when I don't know who the MC IS yet? I want to love the character. I want to read all night because I just CANNOT stand not knowing what happens to them.

I want to be sad when the book is over, because I feel like I lost them. I have made it through many books where the plot didn't deliver because I was sticking with a character I loved. I have never kept reading a crazy plotted book with no distinct MC or no reason to care for them.