There’s an old chestnut in the writing community that there are two types of books. On one side, the high-octane, fast-paced, plot-driven book that has very little characterisation; and, on the other side, the kind of books that deal with character’s motivation and psychological states and, in which, not a lot happens. This is, indeed, an old chestnut. True, there are plot-driven books – like The Da Vinci Code – that rely heavily on plot and have little in the way of character development, and there are books where characterisation is paramount and the action is minimal. But the fact is that most books fall between these two extremes, in a middle ground. The kinds of books written by Stephen King or John Connolly, where there is very much a plot but there is also character development. And it’s this middle ground that interests me.
So, in these middle ground books, which is more important, plot or characterisation? Or are they both equally as important? I imagine that the majority of people reading this – both writers and readers – would say they’re both equally as important. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that characterisation is more important.
I fact, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, and say, plot is not important.
Whoa, crazy writer guy, I hear you say, that’s fighting talk! Well, let me clarify that. First of all, every book has a plot. A plot is merely one event that follows another. If someone just gets up from the couch and walks across the room – that’s a plot. But the plot should not be paramount to the writer. Plots can come from anywhere. Plots are happening in the news, in the street, in the house next door, every day. The plots are not important; it is not the job of the writer to come up with endless believable plots. (“Believable” is a misnomer anyway, because many of the events that take place in real life, most of us would say stretch credulity if we read them in a book.) It is the job of the writer to make the characters involved in these plots interesting to the reader. That’s why some great books have “no plot” as such. Because the characters are so interesting and believable that they don’t require an intricate, fast-paced plot. The ingenuity of the plot is not what is important. What is important is the ingenuity or tragedy or pathos of the characters caught up in whatever plots the writers conceives.
You’ve probably often heard writer’s talk about a voice or a character entering their heads and how they just had to tell that character’s story. This is very true. It happens to us all as writers; we’re inspired to write a character’s story. And we KNOW the character. We must do. They’ve inspired us enough to want to tell their story after all. We don’t know everything about them, but we know the kind of person they are. And that’s enough to begin with. We can start the story there and as we write we will find out more about the character. Indeed, that’s the fun: watching the character grow organically as you tell the story, rather than requiring them to meet some preset list of plot points.
Another thing writers often say is that they didn’t know where the character was going to go by the end of the book or that they thought the character was going to go one way but, instead, went another was that the writer didn’t see coming. This is good. This means the character is – as I mentioned above – growing organically, and is shaping the plot in the process, rather than the plot carrying the character along.
Of course, there will be many that will argue with this, pointing out that crime novels or fantasy novels, etc. would be nothing without their intricately-planned plots. I would say in response that plots in these books may be important but it is still the characters that must carry the book. Stephen King’s or John Connolly’s or Philip K Dick’s plots do not carry the story (in fact, in Dick’s case all his novels were basically the same plot!) their characters do.
So, in summation, characterisation important, plot not so much. What do you think? Am I completely wrong and bone-headed? (It’s a distinct possibility.) Let me know in the comments below.
If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the box on the left hand sidebar. Thanks!