Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Plot Driven or Character Driven?


In discussing plot and character, we often make a distinction between books that are plot driven and books that are character driven.

Most mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers are essentially plot driven. In a plot-driven story, incidents happen, and the characters are forced to react to them.  The hero is accused of murder.  The heroine’s baby is kidnapped.  The heroine wakes up to find the villain has set her house on fire.

In a character-driven book, the story is shaped by the character traits and the inner feelings of the hero and heroine.  Most literary fiction and some romances are character driven.

However, to some extent these two elements are always intertwined.  Because you can’t work on a plot without having the right characters who fit into it and without considering how the incidents affect these people.

The way I think about it is—the most important thing about each element of the plot is—how will the characters I’ve created react to this situation?

What will be their feelings, their emotions?  Seeing the hero dangling off a cliff adds drama and tension to a story.  But the tension is increased when we experience the scene through the eyes of the heroine—who is desperate to save him.

Or turn the tables.  How does he feel if he comes back to their hideout and finds she’s been kidnapped?  What if he comes home and finds she’s packed her things and left?

I’m going to take what seems like an extreme example of a plot-driven scene and look at how adding character-driven elements enhances it.

In Eternal Moon, one of my werewolf books, a serial killer is using implements to torture and murder women real estate agents.  After Jacob and Renata have made love, she gets a tip that he may be the killer.  When she thinks he’s away, she searches his house and discovers planted evidence that makes him look like the murderer (small plastic bags with locks of hair from the women who have been killed).

Jacob comes in and sees she’s found the evidence.  Although he protests that he’s being set up, she’s holds him at gunpoint while she calls the cops.  He changes into a werewolf and shows her why he doesn’t need implements to tear anyone to shreds.

The transformation takes place while the police are on the way to Jacob’s house to arrest him.  The action is tense and dramatic, but it’s only part of the scene.  The emotions of the characters are equally important.  Renata’s horror that the man she made love with is a serial killer. Jacob’s anger and frustration that she thinks he’s guilty. His desperation to prove it can’t be him.  Her terror at discovering his true nature.

This scene is obviously from a paranormal romantic suspense novel.  The external plot is the suspense plot, which has to move at a good pace to keep the reader turning the pages.  But, as in any romance, the internal plot is always equally–or more–important.

Once I get my basic idea, I focus on the characters and the conflict between them as I design the incidents of the story.

In any scene you write, you don’t have to get it down all at once. I often start by focusing on blocking out the action. In the scene I described above, the action is her breaking into his house and discovering the evidence hidden in his closet, his coming home and finding her, her holding him at gunpoint while she calls the authorities, and his changing to wolf form.  I may initially get some of the characters’ emotions, but I always have to go back and add more to tie the action to what the characters are feeling.

The scene I described above started from Renata’s point of view as she sneaks through his house, first feeling guilty because she’s spying on Jacob.  Then her emotions turn to horror as she thinks he’s the killer.  When Jacob comes home, it switches to his viewpoint so I can get his feeling of shock–then desperation–as he tries to convince her of his innocence.
I don’t hop back and forth from one viewpoint to another in a scene. I stick with one character and perhaps switch POV once, if I think it’s necessary.  And I do try to use the POV of the character who has the most to lose.

But you can show a character’s emotions by using cues that the viewpoint character observes. It can be body language (her shoulders tensed), facial expressions (her mouth softened), tone of voice (her voice went high and reedy),  manner of speaking (she clipped out her words), or actions (she slammed the book onto the table).  Take it as a challenge to show the reader a character’s feelings without being in his or her head.

One more point I should make—the emotions of the characters are always crucial in a love scene. Otherwise it’s just a description of putting tab A into slot B.  Women writers are better at this than most men writers. (Ken Follett is a notable exception.)  One of my favorite examples of an inadequate love scene written by a man consists of these two sentences: “He climbed into bed.  He reached for her breast.”

If you’re oriented toward plot, don’t leave out the emotions of the characters as you tell your story.  And if the characters are what interest you most, make sure enough is happening in the story to keep the reader turning the pages.

Do you think of yourself as a plot-driven or a character-driven writer, and why?

17 comments:

  1. Many non-suspense Harlequin novel categories, such as SuperRomance, are character driven. I sometimes feel frustrated by the guidance to tone down plot. But I agree, both are critical to any good story. I'll be interested to see if there are comments on your assertion that women are better at this (emotion in love scenes) than most me. I read mostly fantasy and science fiction, notorious for not doing much with love scenes, so I don't know of any other notable exceptions to your statement.

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  2. I think most men are uncomfortable with writing and reading stories with a lot of emotion.

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  3. I love the way you provide examples of the points you make. This brings all the "rules" alive. Once again, a truly informative and helpful post.

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  4. You've given us a very clear tutorial. Thanks!

    While my books generally start with a vision of the first scene and go from there, I think I've learned to be plot driven from you and the group. Outlining the book ahead of time reinforces this. Then, as you said, I go back and layer in the sensory cues and emotion. I learn about the characters as I go and sometimes they surprise me.

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  5. I tend to be more 'character driven'--when I'm starting out. I will have a sense of the plot but I believe in letting the characters 'take-over' and tell their story. I agree with Willa and my characters definitly surprise me. Their actions, words and even their thoughts are usually very clear to me so they are the driving force. But I agree on using their emotions to drive the plot along.

    Love your blog lessons--always something great to learn!

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  6. You write: "I often start by focusing on blocking out the action." Can you plz tell us a bit more about the process of "blocking out the action." Is it a move-by-move sequence? Or just something like, "John protects Laurie by covering her body with his." How detailed do you get?

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    1. "John protects Laurie by coverin her body with his," would be in my outline. By the time I sit down to write the scene, I have to start coming up with the details, although a lot of them don't come to me until I'm actually writing.

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  7. I'm mostly character driven. Characters come to me and tell their stories. Their behavior is always about who they are for me. If I try to put them into plots I devise, they balk. If I need to follow a plot, I ask for volunteers who can do what is needed.

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  8. Thanks Loni and Mary. I usually think of "an idea" first, then characters. Sometimes it's the other way around.

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  9. I'm with Mary. The characters always seem to come to me first. What the heck to do with and to them comes next and that is always hard for me. Your blogs are helping immensely. Having things spelled out in black and white clearly makes a difference to me. You're a dynamite teacher.

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  10. Chassie, thanks so much! I, of course, am plot oriented.

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  11. Hi, Rebecca. I'm soooo late getting here for this installment. As always, you present a well-reasoned discussion. I like to consider myself 50/50 when it comes to characters vs. plot driving the story. If I get an idea for a plot, I work to find characters to implement the action. If the characters arrive first, they are usually full of advice when it comes to the story they want me to tell.

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    1. I hope I'm fifty fifty. I had to work hard on learning how to show the emotions of my characters.

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  12. I enjoy your stories and your insight so much. Thank you for sharing your talent with us.
    I'm more of a character driver writer. Showing the emotions come easily but have to work on making the plot a strong one.

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    1. Thanks! I think all writers need to rely on what they do best and fill in the hard parts. It's different for each of us.

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  13. Great post! An editor told me once that I do better with a strong plot to hang my story on so I probably should be more plot-driven, but the creativity doesn't always work that way. I would say I'm both.

    It depends on where I am and what pops into the brain. I've come up with books based on a hero. One of my series stemmed from a line I read by a mountain rescuer in a climbing forum after a rescue on Mount Hood. Suddenly this hero was so clear in my mind I just knew I wanted to write his book. Other times it's a plot where I know what I want to happen, but not quite sure I know who it's going to happen to. I think both ways can work, but you have to make sure you fill in all the missing pieces. All plot books aren't fun to read, because I want that emotion and understand the motivation behind actions and see the growth of a character at the end. I'll add that as a reader, I like characters to be going after or doing something to drive a story.


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    1. Great comments! It's the same for me. Sometimes I think of a character and want to put him into a plot. More often, for me, it's the plot idea. I just finished a couple of proposals and had the idea for one while having breakfast w/ my editor. She was talking about the kind of book that works best for Intrigue--and I came up with one. At least I hope so.

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