Plot versus Character

Warning: Spoiler about Stephen King’s It below.

“The Myth of the Plot-Driven Story” by Allison Brennan in the May RWR (Romance Writers Report) has been on my mind. First off, it’s very well written and the advice is quite good. And I don’t have any specific objection to it yet the piece rubs me wrong. It’s not that I don’t agree a novel rests on characters, it does. I don’t just believe the thing about characters causally (as in “periods are good at the end of sentences now let’s get to the important stuff”), characters really matter to me and I can’t start a writing project until they feel right. But, thing is, I can’t start until setting and plot feel right either.

Allison is multi-published and teaches many seminars so I’m sure she knows her stuff. My suspicion is that she sees a lot more writers getting tripped up over plot when they should be focusing on characters. It’s very easy as a starting writer to focus more on the plot than you should because, after all “that’s the stuff that happens”. And you’ll be pitching plot when it comes time to sell (characters, too, of course but word association, “pitch” –> “plot”). Reviews often focus on plot, especially reader reviews which often pick apart a plot. Your first thought at project start may be to start creating that plot outline. So, very easy to overdo plot to the detriment of characters.

Yet, to call plot-driven stories a myth bothers me. It may be true that writers tend to obsess on plot but you can overdo characters at the expense of plot as well. For that let’s turn to Stephen King, whom Allison quotes in the article:

In On Writing, Stephen King says, “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest… I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character driven.”

Knowing full well I’m putting a gun to my head to criticize such a successful writer, I’m going to do it anyway. And caveat, I haven’t read his more recent works. But this quote is coming from the guy who brought us It. Now, that’s a very good book: I’ve read it three times and enjoyed each read. And honestly, it’s clearly the characters that draw me to this story. Stop here if you don’t a spoiler because here it comes: this wonderful, engaging book with characters that suck me in ends with: a Space Spider as in “I can’t think of anything else but it’s time to end this book, spiders are creepy, let’s go with that.” It was an ending completely unsupported by the narrative to that point. It’s the most slap-in-the-face ending I’ve ever read.

Even knowing the ending, the book pulls me back because the first 800 pages are so fun but this is clearly the work of someone who thinks CHARACTERS and lets plot go where it will. And where it went was, well, stupid. It’s hard to argue with his wild success but imagine what a book like this could have been with the characterization and a better plot? It could have been a classic. This post isn’t about King so just a little more on him before moving on. I think his earlier, much more concise works did have a better character-plot balance and his wild success was based on that. By the mid-80s some of  the meandering and bloat in his works was due to the lack of a good plot infrastructure (and yes, he had serious personal issues at the time, too, which he successfully worked through. I like the man personally.)

As a writer, you absolutely should not get hung up on plot. One of the worst things you can do is to let an outline cripple you, both the daunting task of writing one and writing to it once it exists. But readers want plot AND character, too. Your story isn’t just about the well-drawn characters, it’s about what happens to them. Shrek the movie wouldn’t be Shrek without the ogre, princess and donkey but it wouldn’t be Shrek without the structure of a great plot either. If a plot-driven story is a myth, so is a character-driven one. If you don’t believe me, think back to your favorite books and movies. Now imagine a “Space spider” kind of plot to it. Do you think you would have really enjoyed it as much?

Granted the exact balance point between plot and character is very much a matter of personal aesthetic, and granted there are very successful writers who go light on plot, but unless you know you’re one of them don’t forget the plot. And you won’t really know until you’re a published writer with a good following.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not a pantser but I’ve also learned that outlines don’t work for me. It was quite liberating to throw them away (mostly, I do use them sometimes when I’m just about to write a specific scene or or chapter). More on that in a following post.

There’s a lot of other viewpoints out there. Here’s a few.