Character vs Plot YMMV by Erastes

I’ve been asked time and again – and I’m sure many readers and writers have been asked the same – “what do you prefer: plot led or character led stories?”

Usually, when put on the spot, I’ll ramble and say that both are equally as important to me, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently and I think I have to come down on one side of the fence, firmly and squarely and say that it has to be characters. Not so much character-led, because I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the characters not only have to be engaging and I have to have a certain amount of empathy for them, whether they are antagonists or protagonists, not the most important thing for me is that they are memorable.

I’m an avid re-reader, you see. My mother – although she was never tested for it – had a very retentive memory. Probably not photographic or eidetic but she forgot nothing. If she read a book or saw a film it was immediately an empty water skin as far as she was concerned, and there was no point keeping it because she only had to recall the name of the book or film and she’d remember just about everything about it. Even 40 years or so later. It was the main reason that there was no books in our house—or very few. Dad kept a few Reader’s Digest condensed books, and there was a collection of Dickens, Dostoevsky and the like in those lovely green and gold covers which will be mine one day.

The book collection was always mine, and from the time I could hold a fabric book I collected books with a passion and am still doing so to this day. I feel sorry for my mother because she never got the warm glow that I get when I sit down again with an old friend and re-read. However her house was a lot tidier than mine, as there are books everywhere…

Anyway, that’s slightly off topic.

I was thinking yesterday about characters and some of the books whose characters have clung to me all of my life. Characters like Lazarus Long in Heinlein’s Future History series. Jill from the Jill pony books. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Fitz from Robin Hobb’s wonderful books. And then I thought of some of the books which people have hyped like mad—books like “Hero” by Perry Moore, and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon and I suddenly realised I had no memory of the characters in these books. I have a vague recollection that Kavalier and Clay were comic book creators and that one of them was married, but as for Moore’s “Hero” – although I know I read it, I can’t remember one single thing about it. Hayden Thorne’s teenage superheroes in her Masks series are far more memorable—in my opinion anyway.

It actually upsets me when i realise that I’ve read a book and can’t remember one single thing from it. I think – what on earth was the point of that? I don’t re-read books because I’ve forgotten them entirely. In fact these books that I have forgotten, the two award winning books mentioned above, are both books I’ll NEVER read again because they were so distinctly unmemorable for me. I re-read books because I’ve forgotten much about the book, although I remember it being an enjoyable read. I even re-read Agatha Christie because after a certain (sadly a long) time I can make my mind forget Whodunnit and they are readable. No, annoyingly with my very favourite Christies, like Five Little Pigs and the like. But books which didn’t have such memorable characters as that book.

Talking of memorable characters, and the Jill books—there are three fat girls in the Jill books—April May and June Cholly-Sawcutt. Names that came to mind easier than Kavalier and Clay (who I had to look up on Google) – these girls are hopeless riders, overweight and the embarrassment of their famous show-jumping father. But they are so memorable that I still re-read these books written for pre-teen girls because of the fun I get re-reading them.

Don’t get me wrong. I love description too. I can get swept away reading the first few pages of Hardy’s “Return of the Native” where we learn far more about the heathland than we really need to know. But in that case—as I’ve been told happens in a couple of my books, such as Standish—an inanimate object—Egdon Heath—becomes part of the book. A character in itself as it were. Heathcliff and Cathy—perhaps—might not have been quite so memorable if their story had taken place in Torquay rather than in Wuthering Heights. The French Lieutenant’s Woman might not have been so ingrained into my soul if she was waiting under a lamppost by a barrack gate rather than staring endlessly out to sea on Lyme Regis’s famous Cobb.

In fact that’s a good case in point. I don’t remember much about TFLW—but Sarah Woodruff stays in my mind more than the plot, and will one day tempt me back to reading it one day because of that very point.

I think it’s the same with my writing too. I don’t set out to write “The story that happens during this period and makes xxxx point” I start with a character on a page. I know nothing about him, except maybe a vague idea of his looks, or what he does for a living. I write him doing something from the first chapter, whether it’s chasing down a suspect, sitting at a desk, hugging his lover before a battle, realising that he’s so far in debt he needs to go and do some prostitution and as I write him, he starts to take shape. I know that most writers don’t write this way, and they often have very detailed character sheets so they know all about their characters before they write a single word about him, but for me, that’s the fun of it all. Learning about him at exactly the same speed as the reader, getting the same thrill of “oh! He’s left handed!” or “he likes cats!” for no particular reason other than that’s what’s happening as he comes to life.

So—yeah. To cut a long story short at last, I prefer character-led books. Because it’s the characters which will keep me re-reading my friends, my books, over and over again.

Erastes
Gay Historical Fiction
www.erastes.com

Author

Erastes is an author of gay historical fiction. Her novels cover many time periods and locations. She lives in Norfolk UK with demanding cats and never seems to have enough time to serve them.

38 comments

  • Character is all important to me – it’s how I relate to books, films and tv. I want the essence of who the characters are to help drive the plot – a tragic flaw would be a good example of this kind of thing.

    Also, a couple of my favourite British comedy shows – which might not be known in the rest of the world – were all about a group of wonderfully eccentric characters sitting around in one room: Early Doors and The Smoking Room. Superb! You don’t need fancy sets and elaborate plots when you have great writing and character acting 😀

    Reply
  • I can enjoy either type of book, but it’s a book with great characters that will stick with me longer and can make me reread – or rewatch a movie or TV show.

    If something has a great plot but the characters don’t really speak to men then once I’ve read or watched it, then I’m done with it. It was great, but I know what happens now. Thanks and goodnight.

    On the other hand, if I love the characters I can go back to it over and over, even though I know what’s going to happen, because I love the character and want to see them again doing their great stuff. I know Sam is going to kill Shelob, I know the Heart of Gold is going to go to Magrathea, I know Gussie Fink-Nottle is going to present the prizes while sloshed. I just like seeing it happen – again. 😀 And what’s more, I can feel differently about the character at different times. One of my favourite books is Cold Comfort Farm and there are time I reread it and think Flora is my hero and other times I think she’s a meddling baggage and want to slap her.

    Good characters can elevate otherwise not so good material. That happens more in TV and movies I think. A good performance, good chemistry between actors can turn an otherwise mediocre show into something special.

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  • A good plot can’t exist and move forward without robust characters to propel it.

    That said, your Junction X was one of the best books I read in the past year (or ten). Wrenching, but absolutely brilliant. (And Alex’s cover is perfection!)

    Reply
  • What a Great Question! Leading to a captivating discussion. Tantalizing because I always get locked up in frustration on either/or questions and desire to answer it but just can’t get there and the answer Both is too simplistic! So my thoughts are this: Balance is not only important but paramount. There have been novels I’ve re-read many times that were character driven, but the characters were so strong and the plotting so sublime you’d be hard pressed to decide which dominated. Dumas’s D’Artagnan Romance series (minus The Death of Aramis which I sadly have never found a copy to read). Another recent re-read, Balzac’s Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life, relies heavily on characterization yet this seems so freeform. I’m thinking this is a matter of the time in which it was written and the time within which I am reading.

    My most recent read and a new author for me is James Lear’s The Back Passage – entirely character driven but a lot of fun – though I hate it when there is no happy ending as defined by me! Yet I’ve purchased the next in the series.

    My last thought is Characters have the power to move one emotionally, and yes it is accomplished through plotting, even if you get the Plotting right if the characters are not up to snuff, it fails. Reading is a sensory experience for me, the mind the largest sensory organ IMHO, so I’ve now convinced myself it’s Characters. Thanks for asking.

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  • I can’t offer the exact quote, but I once read that Honoré de Balzac once told a fledgeling writer never to try to write a story about a man who was hanged for murdering his mistress. He said instead to create a character who, dropped into a particular situation, will inevitably kill his mistress and allow himself to be caught and hanged for the crime.

    Even if I had not taken that advice to heart, I should not be able to write any other way. When I start writing I only have a vague idea of how it will all turn out and how it will get there. With my first novel even though I had known the characters in it since I was 12 I learned right away that no character will allow the author to force him or her into an action or decision s/he didn’t intend all along.

    One of the joys of this, as clearly Erastes agrees, is that I get to hear the story first, before any reader.. and am as entertained and drawn in as they later will be. That’s why I say over and over that being a novelist is the best job a person can possibly have.

    Thanks for this essay.

    Nan Hawthorne
    Our Story: GLBTQ Historical Fiction

    Reply

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