Character or Plot?

on January 24, 2008

I’ll admit, I absolutely HATE the question, “Are your books character-driven or plot-driven?”

A good book is both. I hate books where cool stuff happens but you don’t care about the characters–anyone with a gun could fill the bill. And I hate books that’s all about people and emotion and stuff happens, but we only see their reaction or feelings. They spend more time reacting than acting. I love thrillers, and I love romances, but the WORST thrillers are all about the coolness and the WORST romances are all about contrived conflict.

We don’t live in a vacuum, and neither should our characters. Every character should be driving the plot, and every plot should challenge those specific characters. In other word, the characters drive the plot and the plot drives the character. But THAT, my friends, is STORY.

Donald Maass says in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL that “a character-driven story is one in which the character’s own impulses, desires or needs drive the plot.”

I would argue that depth of character requires the character to have a simpatico relationship with the plot–the character’s choices and actions will affect the plot. Who they are and WHY (backstory) is essential to developing a real, three-dimensional character. Backstory and understanding the choices a character makes invests the reader into the story.

In the end, it’s about the story. In anyone has read or listened to Stephen King’s ON WRITING, he will pound this concept over your head. Whenever I get stuck, it’s because I’m focusing too much on either the plot (what’s happening) or the characters (how they feel/react to what’s happening) and I forget that it’s the connection between the two that keeps the STORY moving forward and keeps the reader interested in turning pages.

Now, you’ve heard me say here many times that character is story, story is character, yada yada. I firmly believe that, except Toni Causey pointed out in a recent post at Murderati, that it’s really Characters IN CONFLICT are story. (Toni, if you’re reading, I couldn’t find the dang post I’m thinking of, so if you want to post the direct link for our readers, please do!!)

This is a much better way to describe driving the plot.

Conflict is the plot. Conflict is what’s happening around the characters, to the characters, within the characters. Without conflict (plot), you have no story. Without internal conflict, you have no character depth.

Sorry to rush off, got a deadline . . . but just as a reminder, KILLER YEAR went on sale this week. It’s already gone into a second printing (yeah!) and has received great reviews. KILLER YEAR is an anthology with 2007 debut thriller/mystery authors and a few others (like me.) So if you like great short stories, check it out!