Monday, January 17, 2011

Plot driven fiction vs. character driven fiction

I'm working on my fifth book (if you exclude two that are definitely DRAWER NOVELS) (whoa, I've already written four legit books? Sometimes I still can't believe I actually write entire novels, beginning to end...even when it's my job and I've done it six times if you do count drawer novels, it sounds very daunting) and I see this is going to be a plot driven novel.

I've noticed now that my novels tend to fall into one category or the other.

Character-Driven Novels:
--Take longer to write, and are more difficult, because the characters come with strong personalities and I have to figure out what they would actually DO that could be an interesting story. I have to work with them, because they won't change just to be exciting. Dialogue scenes are particularly hard, because the characters in my mind are very natural. Too natural. Like, hey guys, I've got a story to tell here, I don't have all day.
--Haunt me all day and night. I have dreams about the characters, and I think about them in little out-of-story vignettes.
--Are harder to write, but more fun to have written. I like to reread them, and imagine the what-happens-after.
--Are cozier. They tend to have more humor and sweet moments to balance the tension, because I would be happy just writing about these characters buying their groceries, and in fact, have to resist the urge to do so.
--Compel me to get out my sketchbook a lot more often, to capture those little moments that don't fit in the book.
--Tend to be romance and relationship driven.

Plot-Driven Novels:
--Are written more quickly, because although I have an outline, the plot is so exciting that it compels me to keep writing to see exactly how it will unfold.
--Are very fun to research and world-build, at least so far, because so far my plot novels have had a very intriguing historically based setting as well as an exciting plot.
--Are fast to write, but yuckier to revise, because I don't love the characters as much to spend tons of time with them.
--Aren't as interesting to me in the long run.
--Rely on constant tension and mystery to propel the reader forward.
--The setting is vivid, but the character's lives don't run beyond the bounds of the story. If you walked into the book on the "off-time", you'd see everything dismantled and the characters sitting around drinking coffee or something instead of being their real selves.

You can probably tell which I prefer. Character novels. And yet, I think I need to write a little of both. I think I push boundaries more with my plot novels and write them in a blur of excitement, and then I cozy up a bit with the character novels. So far I only have one novel out, Magic Under Glass, and it's a plot novel. Between the Sea and Sky is a character novel. Magic Under Stone is the only novel I've written to be equal parts both, I think because I knew the characters much better than when I wrote Magic Under Glass. So I have yet to see which my readers seem to prefer.

Extreme examples of character vs. plot novels would be the Betsy-Tacy books vs. The Hunger Games series. I throughly enjoyed both. The Betsy-Tacy books are comparatively easy to put down (in fact, I rather like to stretch out the experience of a character-driven novel), but dear to my heart. I reread them. Hunger Games has compelling characters, but if it was just a little story about Katniss, Gale and Peeta in their town, the readership would be much less. I read every Hunger Games book in one day the moment I got my hands on it, but I'll probably never read them again. (Some people do, obviously this is a matter of preference.)

As a reader, character novels are always the ones I save in my collection and read again and again. But plot novels are the ones I devour in a day. Both experiences are enjoyable, but if I could pick one kind to read, it would be the former! And some novels straddle the line--I think Harry Potter is a good example. And some novels will be one thing to some readers and another to other readers. It's all about what is compelling you to read on.

Which do you prefer to read or write?


  1. Ooo, this is so interesting! I'm a wannabe author and this is just the sort of info that straightens out a bunch of mixed-up things I have swirling around my head. I much prefer character novels, too, and it's been a struggle making my characters actually get up and DO STUFF. I've tried to inject some action, because I do appreciate a really action-packed book (see Hunger Games). I'm learning how much of a light touch action scenes require. They're definitely out of my comfort zone!

  2. I feel you, Stephanie... I think I'm a character writer by nature, too, but over the years I've learned how to outline and follow through with a plot driven novel. I really wish I knew how to produce an equal marriage of both. But I can't think of too many novels that really excel at both, so I guess it's a hard thing to do.

  3. As a reader, a book with a really good plot is more likely to make me pay attention/buy it, but unless it also has really wonderful characters it won't stay with me and become a truly treasured story.

    As a writer, I tend to get plots (or concepts, like "a girl runs away to join an intergalactic circus" or "a girl has to make a fake fortune come true") before I get the actual characters. I actually think that, for me, first person was the key to finally writing something that sold, because it really helped me take a step forward in terms of character (even though that book was still primarily plot-based). And I've been trying to push myself in the characterization department with each new project since then.

    The first book that popped into my head as an example of something with excellent characterization AND plot was Watership Down, hee. I also think much of the Harry Potter success comes from the fact that people both adore the characters and are intrigued by the plots (especially the mystery elements).

    (whew, long comment! I look forward to seeing what others have to say)

  4. I like the ones that straddle the middle. It's actually what I try to write, and it's a little frustrating to have people tell me that a book I'm feeling all character love for is very plot-driven for them. I know the one I just finished is--and I feel that same way you described--it was a very quick write, but it's not like I dream about the book all the time or something. I mean, I like it, but it's not like I'm thinking about my MC much outside of the story.

  5. Wow, Deva Fagan! I feel like a superstar just walked into our midst. Prunella Bogthistle was the best book I read in 2010.

  6. I think it's comparable to movies. The big blockbusters are the ones directed by Michael Bay with 50% of their budget spent on CGI, while indie movies that cost a pittance to produce usually consist of a bunch of close-ups of actors faces and tons of dialogue. But, the movies that make a lasting impression on the widest range of audiences are the movies that allow for both action and deep characters: Toy Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Saving Private Ryan, Forest Gump (whoa, that's three movies with Tom Hanks. Maybe the answer to good stories is really just Tom Hanks).

  7. Deva: I agree, the plot is the hook. If the plot intrigues me, then I'll look for the book even if the reviews are mixed or I haven't heard much about it. Although sometimes it's a great plot and sometimes it just pushes a plot button. Like, it's set in the Victorian era or it's about a mermaid or...I have a lot of plot buttons... Character books with "quiet" plots I don't seek out AS much unless I start hearing word of mouth that it's really well-written.

    Of course, it is funny, because while Between the Sea and Sky was a character book for me as a writer, I also think it's high-concept in that "love story between mermaid and winged dude" is the easiest to explain hooky plot I've ever written...

    Rose: I like the ones that straddle the middle, too, in theory, but in practice most jump out one way or another for me...

  8. @Stephanie Thank you for the unexpected but very sweet compliment!

    @Jaclyn I have a lot of plot buttons too. Mermaid is one of them! (thus I am very eager for Between Sea and Sky!)

  9. I think I tend to write more character driven novels. The one I've been working on for what seems like FOREVER is definitely character driven and slower paced. The new one I'm working on...not sure. I think it's slightly more character driven but there's (hopefully) a compelling plot coming through. It's only in first draft stage though so a lot is bound to change!