Let’s Discuss: Character-driven books or plot-driven books?

Posted November 22, 2015 in Discussion / 7 Comments

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Hi guys! It’s been ages since I’ve done a discussion post and I’m falling woefully behind on my challenge but ah well. Life. Ya know. University. Stuff happens. Here’s one now!

(get ready for a text-heavy post)

What’s better? Characters or plot?

Okay, I don’t have a SOLID opinion on this at the moment, so I’m gonna start off saying why both are important, and we’ll see if one comes out over the other by the end.

Characters vs. Plot

So I made this fun chart with a few points on it. Let’s go through it, shall we?


 

CHARACTERS.

Characters are essential to books, right? If we didn’t have characters, we wouldn’t have anyone to DO anything, so we wouldn’t have a plot either. So we need characters. Yes. Got that down.

But do we need GOOD characters?

This is the real question. People have preferences either way. Some people don’t care if the characters are as 2D as a sheet of paper as long as the plot is good. Some people will put the book down if the characters aren’t developed enough.

Which category do I fall in?

I’m in the former category. I PREFER good characters, but it won’t bother me to the point of DNFing. I rarely DNF anyway. It takes a lot for me to do that. Will I bash the character development in a review? Probably not too much. I will mention it, but I mean at the end of the day, there really isn’t much to say, is there? “Yeah, characters weren’t so complex. So, let’s talk about the plot instead….” And that’s what I’ll do.

So what makes a good developed character?

Does the character have to go on some huge introspective journey and grow psychologically? Does there have to be any change at all? Or do I just need to be able to tell you everything about the character by the end of the book? Do I need to feel like this character is living and breathing and out there somewhere?

Of course, all these things, however subtle, can be marks of a well-developed character. Naturally, it would be very difficult to know everything about a character from a book. A character is like a person in some kind of abstract reality. You can’t possibly know everything about them. You can’t even try. In real life, you can at least try. I believe that too many details does not necessarily make for a good character. A lot of details are unimportant. What the character’s favorite ice cream flavor is? Probably irrelevant, unless their best friend bought them the wrong ice cream flavor and started a 10-year feud and that’s the premise of the book. How the character reacts to a hostile alien takeover? That’s probably a little more interesting.

I’m going to diverge a little bit on a topic I find interesting. Does the author have the final say in what the character is like? Alicia @ A Kernel of Nonsense has a fantastic post on this. Check it out. My response was this:

I totally believe that characters are so much bigger than their authors. (I actually had to write an essay on this in one of my classes- Philosophy of Art.) I feel that since characters, like fictional worlds, are so intangible, they really can’t be pinned down by anyone. They’re fiction, so they only exist in the mind anyway, and because of that, they exist differently to the different people that interpret them. I mean, how well does an author really know their character anyway? If someone were to ask an author what their main character’s favorite pie flavor was, or whether they preferred snakes or guinea pigs, chances are the author would either make something up on the spot or have to look through their notes to see if one answer would make more sense over the other. Basically, a reader could do that as well as the author could.

The first comment on the post was also fantastic.

Ultimately, I believe a developed character is someone who isn’t predictable. Someone with something deeper going on. Someone you can imagine as a person in real life. Someone who is complex and doesn’t conform to any well-known character tropes. Someone who has goals and dreams and hopes and fears that may or may not be relevant to the story. And it is possible to have complex secondary and tertiary characters as well. Sometimes all it takes is a gesture or a bit of dialogue or a small action to reveal something under the surface. When you can pick out a character and imagine quite clearly what they’d do in any random situation is when you’ve found a complex one.

So what about connecting to characters?

What does ‘connecting’ mean anyway? Does it mean liking the character? Or does it mean recognizing they are complex? I think it’s a bit of a mix, but it leans more towards liking the character. In a book, I think you should connect to at least one, preferably 2+, in order to keep reading. Because then you care what happens. If you hate everyone in the book, then why would you wanna keep reading? To see bad stuff happen to them? I mean, someone’s probably going to get a happy ending…unless you’re reading a tragedy.

So, yeah. I want to feel something about the characters. I want to like some, feel like I could be friends with some, maybe be attracted to some, hate others, want some as siblings, care about what happens to most. This is much easier to do when the characters are complex and I can see them as living, breathing people. If someone good suffers in a book and I meet someone in real life who reminds me of them, yes I will be much more compassionate to that person. Characters should leave lasting impressions. I should want to read more about them and get to know them in any way possible.

So why am I okay with reading books with under-developed characters?

Am I more of a plot person? Is that it? Maybe. I think with me is that if there’s a good balance, I’m fine. If the plot and characters are okay, it’s an okay book. If the characters and plot are crap, it’s a crap book. If the characters are awful but the plot is excellent, it’s an okay book. If the plot is lacking but the characters are great, it’s probably a little better than okay. Not much better, but yeah. I think that’s somewhat of an answer, isn’t it? I do value my characters. Very much. They can affect the outcome. But not them alone. I consider everything, plot and characters being the two most important. I am very much a big-picture kinda person.


PLOT.

Plot is essential. Unless I’m reading a diary. Of a really interesting person who has cool stuff happen to them all the time. That’s kinda a plot in its own, right? But nah, I’m talking about your typical plot structure: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, denouement. I want there to be some kind of goal, some kind of event or thing we’re working towards. I want big things to happen.

Like I said in the chart, a meandering plot is better than no plot. Even if I can’t tell directly where the plot is going, at least it’s gonna end up somewhere, right? (It had better end up somewhere.) Sometimes it’s nice to not have everything predictably mapped out for you. Just roll with the punches. Take life as it comes. I find that a lot of books that do this are more realistic, this-really-happens-to-people books. No easy happily-ever-after. People have to work for stuff. Things come out of nowhere. They have to deal with them. C’est la vie. This isn’t my favorite type of plot (I’m a fantasy lover at heart) but it’s better than not having any plot.

(Is it even possible to not have a plot? Is a book that doesn’t have a clear resolution plotless? Unless the book is nonfiction, it has to have a plot, right? Well, this is probably a whole nother discussion, but I’m going to go back to what I said about the plot structure. That’s the kind of plot I’m referring to.)

I DO want a resolution. I want there to be a clear ending, EVEN if there are sequels. Okay, here we bring up the issue of cliffhangers– I’m generally fine with them if I have the next book already, if I really care about the series. If I don’t care, then I don’t care. Simple. But a cliffhanger does count as an ending. At least, to me. Something happened. Something big. Something game-changing. We didn’t end with someone having coffee while formulating a plan to confront their cheating husband. That’s like middle-of-the-book junk that no one should end on. (I also would hate it if the book ended right before they confronted the husband, like the day of- that’s not cool. That’s like the worst kind of cliffhanger.) I want to be able to say something the book ended with. Some memorable event. Not some event that was ABOUT to happen. “Oh, the book ended right before the big fight was supposed to happen…” You have to say ‘supposed’ because you don’t even know if it actually happened because that’s in the next book. That’s lame. Okay, I could go on forever about the types of cliffhangers and which ones are cool and which ones aren’t, but let’s get back to plot. If I feel like we were working towards something the whole book and we got it, that’s a good plot. As long as we got something at the end. That’s my reward for reading that far.

So plot’s important. How does it relate to characters?

If I don’t like the characters, I’m not going to care about the plot, right? WRONG. Sometimes plots are fun. Sometimes they’re important and even if the characters are unlovable, I could put myself in their shoes and live it that way. Sometimes I’m really curious about the details of an alien invasion even if I don’t particularly care if the characters get butt-probed or not. Like, what’s going through people’s heads about subject matters like this? What makes authors want to write this stuff? Are they onto something that other people aren’t? If the plot is unique or insightful enough, characters can take the backseat whether they’re 2D or 3D. Just how it works. ‘Course it can massively improve the book if the characters are good, but it becomes less important. That’s how I can read books with under-developed characters. It’s not about the characters at that point. It’s clear the author wanted to focus elsewhere. Let’s just go with that, then. Allow the author to show us what s/he wants to show us. You can always put the book down if you don’t want to see it.

Oh man, what was the original question again?

So what’s better? Plot or characters?

I think we’ve exhausted this, haven’t we? Do you want a short version? A nice little summary? Here goes:

Both are important. Depends who you are and what you like to read. Sometimes a good balance of everything is what determines if a book is good or not. Plot can be good independent of characters. Characters are generally shaped by plot.

Dang, that answered almost nothing, didn’t it? Do you want an even shorter answer? (I’m not good with summaries.)

Based on personal preference…


PLOT.

There you go! I hope this post was interesting.

Let’s discuss! What do you think is more important? Can you read books with 2D characters? Have you ever put down a book because of bad characters or plot? 

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7 Comments on "Let’s Discuss: Character-driven books or plot-driven books?"

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Ruby @ Ruby's Books
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Great discussion post! For me the plot is important, yes, but if I hate the characters then I can’t read the book. I can loathe the plot, but still enjoy reading the book if I like the characters. Sure, it is fantastic to be surprised by a story and not go “Oh, I saw that coming a mile away”, but if the characters are similar to paper doll then I won’t enjoy the experience of reading. Because I need to care about the character, like you said, to care about the plot. I do, however, have to mention that if the story is in the same spot in the middle of the book as it was in the beginning, then chances are I’ll DNF that book. But again, if the characters are good then I have something to keep me interested enough to read until the last page.

Jodie @ Words Read & Written
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I need to connect with the characters. Definitely.

Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction
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This is such a thoughtful post! I honestly think I veer toward the character side rather than the plot side. That’s not to say that I’d enjoy a book with NO plot, but I think I’m more forgiving of books with plot holes than I am of books with characters I don’t connect to. Honestly, I’ve read books where lots of exciting things were happening, but I just didn’t care about anyone they were happening to. For me, at least SOME connection to the characters is essential for enjoyment.

Cee
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For me, I need a heathy mix of well-developed characters and a great plot because if it has neither, I feel like I’m wasting my time reading about a character that doesn’t grow. Who wants to read a character that doesn’t and who’s flat? I don’t! I usually don’t DNF. Even if the character is incredibly boring, I’ll end up scanning the book because I know I won’t miss much. Underdeveloped characters will frustrate me, and I don’t want that when I’m reading! I always applaud authors who are able to make unlikeable characters likable. For me, my ability to connect with unlikeable characters is because the author has done a great job of developing the character, making them believable, and writing them in a way that isn’t cliche. I can get behind that! If there’s no plot, the author really has to deliver with their portrayals of the character.… Read more »
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