Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Character or Plot?

Well, this was supposed to be posted yesterday, but we had a power outage last night so I wasn’t able to finish it and get it online. Anyhow…

Right now, as I am working to fine tune my work-in-progress, Blood of the Mist, I am reading quite a few books and articles and blogs about writing. And I’m running into lots of talk about “character driven plots” and “plot driven stories.” And so I’m wondering, which comes first—the character or the story? Is one more important than the other? Is there actually a difference? I mean, really. You can’t have a plot without characters. And you can’t have characters without a plot. If it’s a story, the characters have to do something, don’t they? Otherwise you have a verbal still-life.

Okay, I know there is a difference between character driven stories and plot driven stories. I even think I have a pretty good grasp of the difference. A character driven story has a protagonist with depth. We get to see the inner workings, know the thoughts and emotions that are driving this character. A character driven story has a really well developed protagonist, a protagonist whose inner life is as intricately detailed as the outer trappings of the story, and part of the story essentially takes place inside the character, inside his thoughts and feelings. (This is, of course, an overly simplified definition, but it will do for my purposes.)

Conversely, when I think of a plot driven story, I think of stories with rather flat, two dimensional characters. Quite a few thriller/spy stories seem to fall more into this category. Really, though, I don’t think it’s possible to write a novel or short story and not have some content involving the protagonist’s inner life (if anyone has examples of such a story, please let me know; I’d love to have a look). So I don’t know if there really is such a thing as a purely plot driven story.

I think a story that is just about characters moving from point A to point B to point C, doing this and that and having this and that happen to them, falls into the realm of fables and fairy tales. Or possibly stories for very small children—think “Dick and Jane.” And while fables and fairy tales are stories, I don’t think they really fall into the realm of fiction or short stories. They are a category unto themselves, and I believe they fall outside the scope of my current meanderings.

Ah, I think I finally found my point in all of this, finally figured out what I was trying to tell myself. Plot is important—my characters need to do things, and those things should be important to the story and interesting. But without a rich inner life filled with its own conflicts and conundrums, my story will not be as vivid and resonant as I want it to be.

So why is this important? In Nancy Kress’ book Dynamic Characters (by the way, she has several good writing books out there—you should check them out), she writes, “People are endlessly fascinating, endlessly surprising, endlessly strange…If you start with people—characters—as you feel our way into your novel, it, too, can become fascinating, surprising and strange.

In short—real.”

And there’s my answer. There’s why I’ve been feeling like I need to do more with my characters, need to know more about them, need to change some things about them and what they’re doing. I don’t want just action and thrills and adventure. I want more. I want my story to be real, and for that, I need my characters to be real, too.

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