Plot vs. Character

Literary, mainstream, commercial, genre, women’s, upmarket: these are all terms used to define a work of fiction for marketing purposes.  Publishers frequently break each down into more specific areas, i.e. literary experimental or women’s romance or any specific genre, e.g. science fiction, mystery, thriller.  These terms characterize the kind of story presented in a novel.  But there is another way to define fiction in terms of craft: plot vs. character.

By plot, I mean plot-driven.  These stories tend to appeal to readers who like lots of action.  The characters in these stories tend to be two-dimensional, reactive rather than proactive, often stereotypes and exist only to serve the plot.  What is plot?  If story is what happens in a novel, plot is a series of causal events that determine what happens in a novel.  Terrorists attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 = an event.  The US government reacted by attacking Afghanistan where the terrorists originated.  These are two plot events in the story of the war on terrorism.  The attack on Afghanistan was caused by the terrorist attack.  A Soviet nuclear submarine leaves port and does not behave as Soviet nuclear submarines have in the past.  Instead, it heads for the American east coast.  America mobilizes its experts to determine the cause of the submarine’s behavior, its intent and how to react = the plot for Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.  The characters want to stop the Soviet submarine without sparking a war to protect America and save the world from nuclear annihilation.  They have no other motivation beyond that and it doesn’t matter much what their backstories are, or what they feel, what they believe.

By character, I mean character-driven.  In these stories, the plot evolves out of the main character’s motivations and actions, and as a result tends to explore human psychology.  The main character drives the story, not events of the plot.  More than one character can drive the story, too, such as the main character’s adversary, or if there is more than one primary character.  In these stories, the character’s desires, beliefs, and past history fuel his or her motivation for acting to accomplish something.  In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, two primary characters play off of each other’s motivations to drive the story, Mikael Blomkvist who was hired to find out what happened to a young woman, and Lisbeth Salander whose technological talents support Blomkvist’s search.  Blomkvist is not a private investigator, but an investigative journalist, and he sees his search from several angles that motivate him as a journalist.  Blomkvist motivates Salander by his respectful treatment of her and his need for her expertise.  The deeper they go into the search, the more dangerous it is for them and their motivations change.  The events of the plot occur because of what they are doing and what they want to accomplish.  Character-driven stories have something that plot-driven stories lack: character development.  For character-driven stories, writers need to embrace psychology as a tool for revealing character motivations and become students of human behavior.

Genre novels no longer fall exclusively into the plot-driven category of fiction.  Those that are character-driven are marketed as literary genre novels or mainstream novels.  As more writers blend genres or incorporate elements of several genres into their stories, perhaps we’ll see marketing describing novels as either plot-driven or character-driven more often, in addition to other defining labels.  Writers still need to read voraciously and widely, with a specific focus on the kind of novels they want to write.

The main character, Evan Quinn, drives the plots of the Perceval novels.  Understanding Evan’s psychology is an on-going process for me, and the novels are full of interesting characters whose psychology contributes to the stories in the series…..


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