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

38 comments

  • Sure, both plot and character development are important. However, as I was thinking about this I realized the the difference in my 4 star books and my 5 star books have to do with character. Did the book have a moment where the scene/characters jumped out in 3-D? The more this happens the more solidly a 5 star read, for me

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  • Enjoyed your post Erastes 🙂 and reading everyone’s responses.

    Engaging, authentic characters that move through a vividly depicted world in a memorable fashion. How’s that 😉 😀 Plot doesn’t mean much if the characters are of little interest to me. Good dialogue is something I really appreciate. I’m also quite visual so I love gaining a clear setting of the scene (without being too long winded about it)for any story, even if the story takes place all in one room, one place, or one day.

    I adore re-reading favorite books.

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    • Thank you, Dianne, I like it when I get a good discussion going, happens so rarely – and only really here! I agree with you, I can’t be doing with a dull as ditchwater plot even if the characters are great. George RR Martin’s latest book is a prime example, actually – I should have mentioned that in the main post. The characters are wonderful but omg – where’s the plot gone? 🙁

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  • I don’t think there’s anything wrong in saying ‘both’. I won’t read a book with amazing characters who are sitting around doing nothing, and I won’t read a book with cardboard cut outs who I can’t care about at all, even if the plot is amazing. But I think I edge towards preferring plot – I can go for simple, broad brush characters doing amazing things much more easily than I can go for complex, fully rounded characters doing not very much. (That’s why I go for comic books over literary fiction every time.)

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  • I pretty much agree. No amount of clever plotting will make a story memorable if the characters are flat, but intriguing characters can lift up a weak plot.

    I write differently, though. I know my protagonist, their backstories well, and those practically drive the plot. Supporting characters, on the other hand, I create as I go. When I start a story I know the plot only in broad strokes, and discover the details during writing.

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    • I think one day I’ll have to make a detailed character sheet and see if it makes the process easier! Thanks for commenting!

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      • What I find those detailed character dossier things useful for is to fill in as I go, as I discover little things about the character, or decide on some little fact. It’s easier to look up what I decided to call the character’s sister or something in a throwaway reference by looking in there rather than searching a dozen chapters! Of course, that’s the theory. Actually doing it is another matter!

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        • I mean to start those, truly I do. every single time, and then I’m half way through the book and I forget what colour eyes my chap has and I realise “D’oh!” I’ve forgotten to do a character sheet. AGain… 😮

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  • I was going to say “Plot of course” but I’ve revised my opinion. Of course it’s the characters who sell a book. The most exciting plot in the world can be dull if the characters are dull too [Dan Brown anyone?].

    I still find plot important, but I’ll always read about Lord Peter Wimsey no matter what he is doing. If it’s something interesting and exciting so much the better.

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    • Absolutely. Bond wouldn’t have been anything like so interesting had it not been for Bond himself, and the weird quirks he had – same for Dan Brown, I actually bought ALL of his books because they are crack for the brain and brilliant page turners, and it’s Langdon that does that, not Dan Brown and his constant interruptions!!!

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  • I think I keep books around for the purposes of having books. I rarely re-read a whole book, but I’ve been known to look up passages in classics and favourites to make sure I’m getting them right.

    In every case, though, the books I love the most are because of the characters. My very favourite piece of fiction from when I read it in highschool to this day is Under Milk Wood – a play that has no plot to speak of. But it is full of such wonderful characters – almost caricatures, even – that a re-read or a re-listen is always fun (of course, the first few paragraphs of narration are, I think, among the most skilful uses of language that English has ever seen).

    There are only so many stories to tell and so many ways to tell a story, and they’ve all been told before. People are infinite, and therefore significantly more interesting.

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    • Heh. Me too. People always say “have you read all of these?” as if I just have them for decoration, like the rich people in bygone times, and have bought the books by the foot. I so rarely get rid of any book either. Never lend, always give away – and have only famously Book Crossinged one book because it was so awful, and then felt guilty that I’d set it free to inflict others. 😀

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  • Concise Erastes is concise.

    “Memorable characters” is the best two-word description I’ve seen yet of what makes a good book. Plot is necessary, of course, but with good characters you’re guaranteed a plot because good characters do interesting things. The books I re-read until they fall apart — Tolkien, Pratchett, Wodehouse, Stout, Peters, Bujold, et al – are the ones where I want to visit with old friends. Even knowing whodunnit doesn’t matter.

    Thanks!

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    • Thank you, Lee! Yes, even when I know that they aren’t going to get the ending that I crave I still re-read and still root that magically something’s going to change. Stupid Erastes!

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      • Hi; first time poster. I was going to give Wodehouse as an example of plot trumping character, because his books are so densely plotted. Then I thought of my old pals Augustine Mulliner, the Earl of Emsworth, Gussy Fink-Nottle . . .and realized that perhaps it was character after all.

        Great language helps too, of course.

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        • Absolutely! They did have great plots, but it’s the characters we remember, and the cow – creamers, and the newts! 😀 welcome and thank you for commenting (sorry to be so long in replying…) 😎

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  • I’m obsessed with characters. Even my secondary characters have a history. Everyone has habits from biting their lip to the way they chew their nails to dialogue quirks. I can’t write my books without my characters being vivid and living in my head. And, depending on the character, my plot points are developed from their behavior.

    The main character in my current novel is an asshat. As such, the worse he acts, the more I torture him. My main protag had to suffer the consequences of his bad behavior. And he needed to grow and change and see the world differently. That’s how I wrote that particular book and it was relatively easy to do the things I needed to do.

    The next one is harder to have character-led and involve a mystery because the protagonists don’t deserve all the terrible things I’m going to do to them. I tell myself that one MC needs to mature in order to have healthy relationships and the other needs to lighten up. That is going to be the driving force behind my novel and what happens.

    I think that (at least as I understand it) the way I write is what they mean by character-led.

    Start with a character and revolve the plot around him and what he would do.

    Like you, for me books that are plot driven aren’t as memorable. I can remember Travis from Watchers and Smokey Barrett from every Cody McFadyen novel. I remember Kate Scarpetta and Temperance Brennan. It’s all very much about characters for me. They live and breathe on the page. Sometimes I imagine the pages heaving like May West’s bosoms.

    don’tjudgememaywestwashot 😀

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    • I don’t blame you at all, she was marvellous! and so ahead of her time and there’s not been anything like her since!

      I think it’s characters that spark a book for me, I can see a character, or a situation and I can start writing about him, even if I know nothing else about that book as yet, i’m just waiting for him to tell me. 😀

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      • Are you like me? Do you see a picture and suddenly a character comes to life? This image: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-d0mzKUvVrr0/TpGrmChIYOI/AAAAAAAABu0/K9rX0tDs92M/s640/Francisco+Lachowski+3.jpg, sparked an entire novel from me. The moment I saw it the character came to life. Ofc it was my first novel – an awful piece of trite, cliched nonsense, but still it inspired me. Even though that story may not see the light of day, the characters in it were pretty vivid for me.

        That image still haunts me and it still is hard to remember that the picture is Francisco Lachowski and not “Sam”. LOL

        (PS: There are only two women (so far) that I’d switch teams for: May West and Rachel Maddow! That list does keep growing though, as my identity changes over the years and smart, strong women are more media-visible.)

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  • I own and love the Jill books; so good to see them mentioned! I was always sad she and Ann gave up the dream at the end though; why couldn’t they get a pony-related job with all their connections?

    Her mum’s books killed me; so utterly sappy and twee, heh.

    Character/plot; I want both. They seem impossible to separate.

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    • Ok so ridiculously thrilled to see Ruby Ferguson’s Jill series mentioned, I lived on those books as a pony mad child……..yes and I reread and reread them, Blackboy and misunderstood Rapide were characters in their own rights! I think I also absorbed all of Jill’s ideas on life………forget the great philosophical thinkers it’s Jill Crewe for me……worrying!

      All of Antonia Forest, Georgette Heyer’s,and Mary Stewart’s characters are still incredibly vivid and its years since I reread them……mmm.

      I am firmly in team character, I will forgive a less than perfect plot, but good characters come off the page and live with me for ever. I will think about them very much as people I know and almost expect to hear from them outside the book. Sometimes I think this is linked to a character having a very strong and individual voice, I swear I can literally hear some characters…….Adrien of course but Joey (Collision Course), Tristan (Crossing Borders), Jack ( Slow Bloom) Sam ( Special Delivery ) Mikhail (Making Promises)………

      Lovely post, thank you. 🙂

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    • Oh that annoyed me too – going off to become secretaries. She had a load of horsey contacts – she could have become a secretary at horse societies or something. It was horribly soulless and I still get cross thinking about it “oh the girl has to conform and do the wife and mother thing and then live vicariously through her children.” HER mother didn’t. grrrrr.

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  • I think I almost agree, I am a rereader too (a little less these days, but I still find time to come back to my favorites) and usually my favorites are the books with great, memorable characters. But to me, as a reader and maybe it is a totallu wrong description, but I see “character led book” as the book where something happens only because of who characters are “as people”. In other words, such books to me are full only of internal conflict and sometimes even when I deeply admire such book I can get bored. Take my beloved “War and peace”, I doubt that even reader who hates it would say that this book is badly written, right? But while A LOT happens in this epic because of who characters are, there is also plenty of external conflict. Does it mean that I like the mix in my books? I guess so. OH, have you read Sarah Monette “Melusin” series? I consider those books to be pretty much character driven books and I love main characters, but oh my god, especially in books three or four (book one and two moved a tiny bit faster imo) I started to stare at the page and wonder whether something can happen and now, please. Thanks for the interesting post Erastes.

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    • Thanks, sirius. I have to agree, I sometimes find myself reading something that I’m enjoying because of the prose and then after a page–or a chapter or two–I’m going “yeah, yeah-PRETTY but when are you going to stop staring out of the window and DO something???”

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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.
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