Plot or Character Driven?

Should your novel be plot-driven, or operate through the motivations of its characters? Your novel will end up being both, of course, with a plot to keep readers turning the pages, and the characters that are believable. More than believable: your novel must have characters your readers identify with, share their excitement and hopes, feel that their goals are worthy, and that failure is too awful to think about. You'll need to intermesh plot and character so completely that one automatically conjures up the other.

Here lies the failure of many literary novels. Brilliantly written, but falling over on the first test: sympathetic characters. If we don't care about the suspicions of the neurotic invalid on the ground floor of the decaying tenement, or that the return of the missing Modigliani will be a triumph at the local art gallery, or a thousand and one such contrivances, then the novel fails. On the world stage, none of these things matters, but they must to the characters, and we must be drawn into their lives sufficiently that they do to us.

Nonetheless, if good novels are strong on both aspects, there are still important differences in writing them. Commercial novels, those giving their authors a living wage, are more likely to be initially constructed as plot-driven, because such novels are more quickly written, particularly with software now available. The main storyline is devised, characters found to act the parts, and then the setbacks and advances with sub-plots are woven in. When everything has been thought through, right down to what each scene must achieve, then the sentences can go to work, essentially joining up the dots. Both planning and writing are time-consuming, but months don't need to be set aside for the characters to mature and interact with each other, when all too often they will refuse to cooperate, creating only dead-ends or yawning gaps. Character-driven writing is more usual in literary novels, but the typical sales of a few thousand copies annually will not keep the wolf from the door, even when supplemented by reviewing and late-night appearances.

Many genres are hybrids. If the author has struck gold with his detective hero, then another mystery in the series is quickly plotted without sacrificing what's been achieved. Heroes may indeed grow as the series develops, and software can again help to introduce actions and character details at the suitable moment, or to remind the reader of what's passed some chapters back. No doubt too much detail prevents the reader imagining properly, but some matters do need to be brought out. The senseless murder, the bank robbery on an empty vault, the hero who throws it all away without reason are not only baffling but unsatisfactory. Life is fragmentary and confusing, but novels are generally expected to make good or explore some of those deficiencies.

To classify novels as essentially plot- or character-driven is also to overlook their larger dimensions. Novels have explored issues of conscience (Dostoevsky), social reform (Dickens), class barriers (Austen) and racial issues (Baldwin). Novels have explore the human heart in love (Turgenev) consumed by ambition (Balzac) by jealousy (Proust) or by class interest (Lampedusa). Some novels have no real plot (Bunin) and some have no real characters (Kafka). Many carry the innermost hopes and feelings of their creators, which is why authors are advised to write the novels they enjoy reading. Intellectual slumming is quickly detected, and literary novels cannot be created with the crude (though effective) devices of the successful thriller.

Resources

Absolute Write. Thread on merits of plot versus character-driven novels.

Write Words. Another literary thread, here on character-driven plots.

Writers Digest. Articles, courses and book on all aspects of writing.

Novel Journey. Literary blog with good listings.

Writers Store. Wide range of books and software.

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