Let’s welcome author Craig Hart this week for the on-going discussion about plot vs. characters. What you will read below comes from his book, The Writer’s Tune-up Manual, in the section called “Thou Spelunker.”
spe・lunk・er noun \spi-y ləŋ-kər, y spē-y \ : one who makes a hobby of exploring and studying caves. (Merriam-Webster)
In this instance, the “cave” is your plot and the spelunker is you. The argument could be made that your readers are also spelunkers, but you have to go there first and lay down the bread crumb trail so the rest of us can find our way in and out.
Like an iceberg, the majority of a cave is out of the natural line of sight. It’s hidden from view. And yet, it is what makes an iceberg an iceberg or a cave a cave. Without this secret portion, an iceberg would be an ice cube and a cave would be a pothole. Not very interesting, are they?
Applied to your plot, this means that most of it is hidden, out of plain sight, but yet guides the story and impacts the reader. This happens in the way of motivation, backstory, and subplot. None of these should take over a story and yet without them no story is worth reading.
When I was younger I read a book by a much more experienced writer who said that plot is a verb. In other words, action was the key to plot. I get what he was saying. As it turns out, however, plot is more complicated. Stringing together action scenes will never result in a gripping tale. It doesn’t matter how many sharks are closing in on the stranded swimmer if I don’t care about the swimmer or their fate.
It might sound like this is more about character than plot. And, in a way, this is true. But as I have since learned, plot is character. Your plot will never be any better than the characters who populate it. Learning to connect the two is the key.
Craig Hart-writer, editor of The Rusty Nail literary magazine, publisher for Sweatshoppe Publications, and author of The Writer’s Tune-up Manual. To learn more about Craig and his work, visit his website!
Next week, K. M. Weiland will be visiting with us!
Please welcome G. J. Owens who is here to talk more about the plot vs. characters in fiction.
The question of the relative importance of engrossing plot versus engaging and lifelike characters is an age-old one, and not entirely dissimilar to the “skillful writing versus great story” debate. Of course, neither option pitted on opposing sides of these examples can stand wholly alone without some supportive aspect of the other. For the latter, I think it a much more rewarding pleasure to read the deft writer, whose every sentence is a joy even if the plot is lacking, than to muddle through a work of poor structure and style in order to “see what happens next” in a masterfully conceived story. For the former, and to the question at hand, I believe memorable fiction rides on the backs of its characters.
It is fully realized characters with whom the reader can establish an empathic connection that will drive a reader page after page. With the only possible exceptions being some sorts of experimental fiction, a great story can only go so far to entice the audience to make the trip if the characters are hollow and uninteresting. Only in the more streamlined fiction of cinema do characters more easily take a backseat to the overall story, but books require a greater investment, and thus greater commitment, from the audience.
Of course, the ideal scenario is for character and plot to bolster one another in equal amounts to the betterment of each. However, if one of the two must be chosen, I would certainly gravitate toward characters that feel as though they live and breathe in my mind–even if they are despicable and irredeemable–over a rich plot that is well thought out and executed. That too is a benefit of great characters; readers can come to comprehend mindsets and deeds we would not otherwise imagine and use them as a mirror for our own, which is the epitome of the human condition.
As a writer, inevitably I would just so happen to have a clever and handy analogy. I like to think of the balance of plot to character as a rat maze. We as observers can view the scientific construction of the empty maze and find appreciation for the obstacles, the twists and turns throughout, but it is a very sterile process. It is absorbed, analyzed, and then set aside. On the other hand, once that confused yet determined rodent is dropped inside, we become invested on a personal level. We root, laugh, jeer, and empathize with the living creature as it struggles to find its way, imagining how we ourselves would react if placed in the same situation. Our investment is transformed from academic to emotional, and I believe this is the most important aspect of literature. It must move the reader on a basic level, and I believe it is through the connection with the characters that these feelings are best achieved.
If you would like to add your own opinion or have questions for G. J. Owens, he’d love to hear them!
G. J. Owens has been writing in various mediums his entire life. Having dabbled in film and music, he always returns to his first love of telling stories. Check out his website for more! G. J. Owens is the author of the horror novel, The White Door.
Be sure to return here next week to read what author Craig Hart has to say on this topic!
Which is more important to a good story, characters or plot?
Aspiring writers often ask me this question and it’s tough providing a straight answer. It’s easy to say that if the characters in your story are flat, the greatest plot in the world will leave your readers flat, as well; but in order to have a good story, the characters need something interesting to do, get in trouble with, or at least talk about, which requires an interesting plot. It’s one of those ‘chicken or the egg’, catch-22 things. A good story is really a combination of good characters and a good plot. Leave one out at your peril.
But which is more important? Characters or plot?
I’ve written stories where I’ve spent months working on the career-defining plot, only to realize that, oops, I’d neglected to fully develop my characters — and that never ends well. Certainly I try to begin with a great story idea, and perhaps an outline of that idea, but like a good film director, once I start working I focus on my characters, letting them help me with the story as it moves along. They know more about themselves and where the story should go than I do, so why not enlist their help? As those of you who’ve experienced this know, when it’s working, and your characters are jumping off the page just to see what happens next, it’s thrilling, and a lot of fun, and when you manage to pull it all together at the end, you have yourself a good story. But like bad actors, characters who don’t give a crap, who couldn’t care less about themselves or their feelings, and who don’t react to who and what’s happening around them, doom your project to failure. Don’t waste months. That plot scribbled on a napkin by Stephen King at your high-school reunion won’t save you. Swallow your pride and move on.
Some of the most popular stories ever written have the simplest of plots: for example, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, or the classic films, Alien, The Big Chill, and even Home Alone — simple plots with fascinating characters resulting in unforgettable stories. On the other hand, we’ve all read books and seen movies with interesting, action-packed, potentially thrilling plots that were cut off at the knees by boring, even annoying characters (my apologies to Jar Jar Binks fans). These stories are unforgettable, too, but not in a good way.
As writers we should always strive to achieve the perfect blend of characters and plot, as Larry McMurtry did in his epic, Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, Lonesome Dove; but when that’s not in the cards, I give the nod to my characters.
Have any questions, thoughts, anything you’d like to add for John? Fire away in the comment section below!
“I’m a thriller writer who loves to write stories that force good people into terrifying situations – just to see how they react.” John Avery, Amazon International Bestselling Author of THREE DAYS TO DIE. Official website: John Avery Books
G. J. Owens will be here next week so be sure to stop by!
When I was a teenager, we used to play the game, “Would you rather?” Would you rather eat fried spiders or grasshoppers? Would you rather be blind or deaf? Would you rather jump out of a plane or off a mountain? Most of us agreed that the best answer to most of the questions was: neither. But that’s not how the game worked; We had to choose.
When asked, “What’s more important—rich characters or a tight plot?”—my answer was swift and sure: both. I adore mystery novels, and the authors I love the most give the reader a healthy dose of both plot and character: Louise Penny, Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Martha Grimes. Over the course of multiple books, the main characters become more like distant relations than fictional characters and their adventurous exploits become fantastic family stories.
But let’s say you must choose between the two. How do you decide? Ask yourself:
+What do the readers of my genre expect? Take a look at the reviews for books in your genre on Goodreads, LibraryThing, and other book review sites. What do the readers adore and despise in these books? Are they more upset when an author cheats on character or plot?
+What am I naturally good at? Some of us can easily build believable characters, others plot like master architects, and a few juggle both well. Know your strengths. Choose a genre that plays to your strengths. And then rock it!
+How can I make up for my weaknesses? Plot writers often make character work by writing series novels. That way they can create and deepen central characters over many books and have time to do what they love, build plot. Character writers sometimes borrow plots from the classics. And why not? They’ve lasted for centuries because they’re good.
+What type of marriage between plot and character works for this book? Every book project is different. We don’t have to choose to be “plot writers” or “character writers.” We can make unique choices for each book.
In the end, I’m always going to answer the question of plot vs. character with BOTH. Choosing between them is like breaking up the birds and the bees or Ken and Barbie.
Bio. Rochelle Melander is an author, speaker, and certified professional coach. She is the author of ten books, including the National Novel Writing Month guide—Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It) She is the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop for at risk tweens and teens in Milwaukee. She’s currently wrestling with some very opinionated characters in a novel for kids. For more tips and a complementary download of the first two chapters of Write-A-Thon, visit her online at www.writenowcoach.com
Have anything to add to this? We love to hear it!
Next week John Avery will be presenting his thoughts on this discussion so be sure to return here!