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  1. Jonias
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    Jonias Member

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    Character Driven, Plot Driven - excuse for bad writing?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Jonias, Jan 31, 2011.

    It's often been tossed around that there are basically two kinds of books, one driven by action, twists, suspense, and ideas (plot driven) and one that looks out through the eyes of the protagonist (at least) and explores his emotional journey in depth (character driven). You either hear people accept the dichotomy, or stress that character development is more important and scold wannabe genre writers for creating cardboard characters.

    Not to say that there aren't books that focus more on one than the other, and that's fine. But I've been thinking...the way this dichotomy has been tossed around, doesn't it sound like a bit of an excuse not to work on our weaknesses? Shouldn't "plot driven" writers work on their shoddy characters? Shouldn't character driven writers take their dull, dithering story and pump it up with some focus and tension?

    The more I think about this supposed "split" the more I think it's important for all writers to make their work as complete as possible. Even a thriller should have well developed characters so we care about them getting out of danger when that action starts. And as much as character is usually the more important element, plot is crucial too and you can't ignore it if you want readers to keep turning the pages!
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have one series that is character driven (Covesea Island - Fantasy) and one series that is plot driven (Gus and Iris Investigate - paranormal detectives).

    That does not mean my plot is weak in one or the characters are in the other.

    Covesea Island - the character is the story, it drives and moves the plot on through many twists and turns. I never use more than two POVs - usually only one. When I do use two one will do half the book, and the other the other half. Or possibly a chapter here and there. The reader has to love the MC or as much as they love the story they will struggle to read it.

    Gus and Iris - focuses more on the story and the characters fall in behind it, but I don't think Gran, Gus or Johnny are weak characters. However I do use all three POVs to tell the story. This story disliking the characters doesn't make the books unreadable if you enjoy the story.
     
  3. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well. You make the assumption that a book having a broader focus (focusing on plot -and- character) for example is better then a book having a more narrow focus. Some times it true that someone writes a work where "Well, you got a strong characters but you need to work on the story" or vise versa is excellent feedback.

    It might sound like a sound line of reasoning that a broader focus seems to be better but by the same line of reasoning let you ens up with assumptions like:

    "Football is a good sport, but knitting-football would be even better! It got a broader focus! And Knitting-archery-eating-painting-dance-ice sculpture-football would be even BETTER sport! It got a broader focus."


    Focusing you books on something isn't bad. Like football, it might already be complex enough, incorporating element of tactics, teamwork, strength, coordination. It can stand alone and be an amazing thing on its own.

    But some times, trying to broaden you focus of you book, perhaps adding more plot focus, or more character focus, or more romance or any element can be like creating Knitting-football. It might cover more, but not necessarily make it better.

    A focused book, isn't better or worse then a book with a broader approach. It just tells another story in another way.

    ---

    And as a side note I like to add that dichotomies is great tools for analysis and discussions at time. They got some merits, as tools, but never represent some absolute truth or even something that applicable in every discussion.
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Well, in some cases (such as in most literary fiction), writers have no interest in making their book/story driven by plot. For such writers, characterization takes precedence over all else. So I would say that there's no reason to focus on both things equally. Personally, as long as the writing is good, I would read both types of books/stories.
     
  5. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    And in case of a James Bond movie for example, we don't want to have Bond and his girls to be more then sexy cardboard heroes. We just wanna sit back, relax and enjoy an nicely paced story. When we -do- want deep characterization we chose something else.
     
  6. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    I'm going to agree with Jonias. I think that yes, there may be exceptions (James Joyce's Ulysses? James Bond?) but they are exceptions and belong at the extreme ends of the spectrum. And, to be honest, James Bond just annoys me and I am unable to wade through Ulysses, but you take something like Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God (awesome, awesome books) and it's something that just about anyone is able to read and that's really profound at the same time. Huge themes, deeply believable characters, tightly woven plot... basically, these are books that are smack in the middle of the spectrum (literary sci-fi with--esp. in Children of God--an epic plot) and that, to me, exemplify how that is where the best books can be found.

    And part of that being in the middle of the spectrum is exactly what Jonias is talking about--being both character driven and plot driven. It's about choices. In a really good novel, plot and character are tightly interwoven with each other, through the characters' choices. It's not separable, not unless you're writing some really postmodern meta thing in which the point is that nothing happens. Character is about choices, because people do stuff. Big stuff or little stuff, it's not like it has to be big. And plot is about choices, because people doing stuff affects other people and makes stuff happen.

    Of course there'll be a lot of books where the balance is tilted more to one side than the other--it's more about character and less about plot, or vice versa. I personally prefer books where the imbalance is as slight as possible though.

    And focusing exclusively on one or the other would be more like working with only one hand than like playing football without knitting needles.
     
  7. The Degenerate
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    The Degenerate Active Member

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    I think this is an issue more focused on the publishing end of the spectrum rather than the writing. It's based on the marketing of the book. Genre fiction is genre fiction for a reason. Most readers just want to be engrossed in a story and kill some time while they're on a plane or a bus and don't want to focus too much on the characters' underlying motivations and reservations. Character driven stories are a lot more difficult to sell commercially.

    Of course, that doesn't mean that you can't have strong characters in a plot-centered piece. Shakespeare was pretty much a speculative commercial fiction whore; he banged out play after play about ghosts, witches, and magic, though we study his work in literature classes and explore the psyche of his characters and don't even pay attention to the silly speculative elements in his plots. Stephen King takes great care in telling his plots through the eyes of compelling characters. And this is one of the reasons that I don't think the guy gets a lot of due credit. They think just because he churns out novel after novel about homicidal toasters, he's some sort of hack. But if you actually read through a lot of his material the characters are rich and unique. Read The Stand if you don't believe this. And Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption.
     
  8. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    Yeah. The movie Stand By Me actually made me realize this. Before that I made fun of my husband for liking him...
     
  9. ojduffelworth
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    ojduffelworth Contributing Member

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    A story can be primarily character based, plot based, or a combination of both.
    No sensible person would excuse bad writing on account of a work laying towards one end of the spectrum rather than the other. That would be plain silly!
     
  10. The Degenerate
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    The Degenerate Active Member

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    I suppose Twilight stands contrary to your argument here.
     
  11. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    I can't agree with you more, Jonias. I, being one writer who likes to get into the technicalities of plot, see it as equally important as good character construction. I strive more and more these days to improve my characters, but sorry to say, it's one of my weaknesses :eek:
     
  12. Pen
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    I'd disagree that a book necessarily being more about one or the other means the aspect less focused on is badly done, or indeed that there being an imbalance is ipso facto bad. If there are parts missing from characters or plots, then you have the tautology that characters were insufficiently expanded on or the plot was ignored, so it is of course badly written.

    Some books are about people very much like the target audience, and so there isn't a lot by way of characterisation as it would simply get in the way- ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. There won't be that much time for in-depth character study and interrogation, but so long as the characters are believable, identifiable and consistent amid the twists and turns of a complex plot, it's fine. Conversely, if there is in depth character study, say how one or two events shaped some character's life, those events needn't be part of a greater whole, or indeed that unexpected or bold- the focus is on the character.
     
  13. Jonias
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    Jonias Member

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    Good replies everyone. But I think I wasn't clear on one thing that many of you have responded to: I do NOT think focusing on one more than the other is bad. Rather, ignoring one almost completely is. Hence my bit about action based stories needing some character to make people feel more compelled when the protagonist gets into danger, and plot to ensure readers of a character driven story are propelled by tension to turn the pages. Like Heather Munn, I really enjoy books that balance both (that was very well said, by the way), but like I said: "there [are] books that focus more on one than the other, and that's fine". Everyone's taste is different, sometimes you really feel like some good old escapism and other times to really get into a character. I really like a lot of books that focus more on one than the other, like crime books and a lot of fantasy books. It's when this is used as an excuse not to focus too much at all on one component that it bothers me. As Elgaisma said, you can have plot driven books with characters that aren't shoddy, or character driven books with plots that aren't lackluster, even if they are not the focus. It's more "passable" I'm concerned with than anything else...not so weak that it's a distraction from the story (granted, this may just annoy me more than most people).
     
  14. Edward G
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    Edward G Banned

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    I think you can only make a book so long. To have one that is both character-rich and plot intensive would make for a thousand page book that read very slowly.
     
  15. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know books that manage both very well - Robert Neill is brilliant at both and by far my favourite writer. Followed quickly by Gervase Phinn his characters and stories are beautiful and funny. Mark Twain is brilliant - I mean Tom Sawyer is an amazing story, but the characters are fully drawn. Dickens again, great plots, fantastic characters. Lousia May Alcott Little Women, Little Men, Good Wives, Jo's Boys are beautiful stories with fun plots, many twists and strong characters. Harry Potter great plots and characters that allowed the more plot driven movies to be not so bad. Narnia is another one. Enid Blyton - sure many of my generation and older have our favourite characters and plots. Even the Hardy Boys depending on the writer can have explosive plots and I love Frank and Joe etc Some of these books accomplish in less than 190 pages.
     
  16. Jonias
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    Jonias Member

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    Again, making sure there aren't glaring weaknesses in either department is key, not perfect balance.
     
  17. Jonias
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    Jonias Member

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    Very well said. I don't think that one precludes the other at all. As Heather Munn so perfectly said, the choices of the characters address both at once. But at the same time, I don't really disagree with anyone who has responded saying that perfect balance isn't necessary. I never claimed that. I just don't like it when a book is terrible when it comes to either character or plot (sure, in rare cases it actually helps, like absurdist comedy...developing complex characters in that genre would probably detract from the basic goofiness that makes them appealing). But generally, I just don't think having "bad" characters or a "bad" plot ever makes the story better, even if it isn't the focus.
     
  18. Heather Munn
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    Heather Munn Member

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    I think this is true *if* the book is going into intensive psychological detail with the characters a la literary fiction (or even stream-of-consciousness, etc). But it's possible to do character well without that. Elgaisma mentioned Harry Potter, and that's a good example; that's a series that no one could accuse of having cardboard characters, but there's not a lot of inner exploring, everything happens in action and interaction. I guess it's like the difference between a richly detailed oil painting and one of those minimalist sketches that draw a human figure with about four strokes. Either one can be done well, and in spite of the simplicity there's still a lot of difference between the sketch and a stick figure.

    Although I guess Harry Potter is a little long... ;)
     
  19. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree personally I would rather the writing technique suffered. When I am reading a good plot, interesting characters are more important than whether someone showed, told, described too much ect. The authors I used as examples above are able to every aspect of writing beautifully.

    Even with comedy the characters still need to be warm and identifiable - I am playing around with innuendo laiden sketches, a Fire Extinguisher (Sherlock Foam) and a Bankers Lamp (Dr Watt) are the main characters, with Ivor Pecker the hardware store owner. There still has to be something for the reader to believe they are at that moment real.
     
  20. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you're right that I think it's more of a publishing than a writing issue. But I'm not convinced that character-driven is harder to market than plot driven. Rather, I think that plot-driven tends to be marketed to men and character-driven tends to be marketed to women.
     
  21. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Character driven stories for young men seem to be what the UK publishing industry are looking for this year its all over agent's websites and the yearbook. 'Reluctant readers' keeps being used as well.

    Why I am desperatly trying to get Someone Else's Life out this year being first person present tense character driven from POV of a seventeen year old boy.
     
  22. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmm. I wonder how well character driven stories for young men will sell? It looks like a niche market, but I suppose there's money to be made in niche markets. I can understand the desire to catch "reluctant readers", but if the industry knew how to do that they'd have done it years ago!
     
  23. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the reasoning is a lot of young men started reading because of Harry Potter and they want to keep the momentum going.

    Also if you label it reluctant reader selling it to a library or school becomes easier. They are a large section of the market.
     
  24. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting. I wouldn't have thought of HP as character driven. There were a couple of well constructed characters (notably Snape), some rather sketchily drawn characters (Harry himself spends most of his time simply bewildered) but lots and lots of plot.
     
  25. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Its not entirely character driven like I said earlier its an example of a plot that does both, it twists, turns has depth and has great defined characters it is 3rd person limited, this was really shown because without those characters being so well drawn the movies would have been dire, they couldn't contain a fraction of the plot and needed to be character driven. For me it was a very rare example of a movie that wasn't ruined by reading the books, quite the reverse it improved the movie to know the rest of the story. That I think is attributed to JK Rowlling refusing to let Warner Brothers have it without her having creative input and her character vision comes out.

    There is also Tales of the Otori which is first person - although personally would agree that was possibly more plot driven. It didn't have the great balance of Harry Potter for me.
     

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