It all depends on what kind of story you’re writing, but in MOST cases; focus on either the plot or the characters. Why?
Because readers are reading because they want something. They want to be entertained, to feel touched, to relate to a character, to escape reality for a little while. While in very very very rare cases people are reading only to pass the time (think Cosmo magazine here), most readers are reading because they want to experience something outside of their regular lives. And so how do you get to that point?
There are two routes: plot, and characters. And if you’re good, you can do both. Let’s see some examples:
Famous authors who have amazing plot, and so-so characters:
- Any book by Tom Clancy. Really. Any book. Tom Clancy writes primarily espionage and military thriller novels; which contains great detailed plots, but generally the characters are cursory and only serve to move the plot forward.
- Jurassic Park, by Micheal Crichton. While the characters are more memorable in the movie, they are still flat archetypal characters.
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I read this book and loved it for the adventure/historical thriller/mystery that it is, and the plot/puzzle structures are great; but otherwise poor Robert and Sophie are not very memorable.
- Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The adventures of Sherlock and his companion Watson are absolutely fascinating; using logical reasoning to solve supernatural phenomenon and surreal cases. And while I love Sherlock and Watson for their amazing talents as detectives, we never really learn anything about them/their personality traits.
- Most mysteries/thrillers. Most mystery series rotate around a single detective or sleuth, and only the story changes. Because mystery and thriller rely on forces outside of the main characters to propel the plot forward, sadly most characters become flat and one-dimensional.
Famous authors who have amazing characters, and a so-so plot:
- Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (and almost all coming-of-age/young adult novels, such as Looking for Alaska by John Green, Feed, Speak, etc.) Young adult novels are almost always character based, because we are focusing on the personal growth/development of a single character, and how that then changes how they interact with the world, versus the other way around.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan. Since most of this book is written in absolute retrospect, we don’t have a lot of forward plot. Rather, we only have the emotions of the characters to construe the plot with.
- Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth has a rather mundane story line, but the character analysis is so deep and precise that it carries the entire plot.
Now, these are all still great books and authors. I would recommend any of the books on the above list as good reading. But oftentimes the pinnacle of being considered a great writer is when you can combine both amazing characters and an amazing plot. Let’s see some examples, shall we?
- The Harry Potter series. We have great characters that almost everyone who reads the series can relate to, and each book has a well-formed, adventure-laden plot.
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a great example; we watch the psychological growth/destruction of the main character, while at the same time managing what is going on outside of his psychotic breaks, regarding his friends, family, and social/political tensions.
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is freaking fantastic. Not only is it about a huge political conflict, but there are multiple plot lines weaving through each other, and each plot line has at least two or three deep, well-formed characters that we learn to deeply sympathize with, cheer for, or love.
- Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Like A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables has a beautiful story taking in the place of a very detailed political conflict.
- The Watchmen by Alan Moore. I thought I would throw a graphic novel into the list just to add a little bit of variety. The Watchmen deals carefully with the psychological and moral struggles each character deals with, as well as the outward growing concerns of the cold war.
(Let me know if you have any examples that fit in any of these categories, I would love to see what you think!)
With that in mind, what kind of story do you write? When I started writing, I thought for sure that I wrote character driven stories, because that is how I think of them in my head. But when I actually write them down on paper, I end up having very strongly action-driven plots. Which is not what I’m going for! So for this Fiction Friday, I would like you to look at your writing: what is the bulk of your writing focus on? Plot or character? Or do you think you have a good balance of both?
If you feel like you need improvement, then do what I’m going to do this weekend. I’m going to write a short story in which almost nothing happens. I will keep the plot to a minimum, while focusing on the character(s) and his/her/their development. This is my personal challenge, and this is my challenge to you. Look at your writing, and if it’s not balanced, write a short story in the extreme of the other direction.
Good luck, dear writer, good luck.