Story or character, which weighs more?

In previous posts, I’ve told you about the beta-readers who praised my work, but now I’m going to come clean. One writer, though complimentary on my writing skills, did not think my story was successful. I respected his opinion, and certainly appreciated the time he spent reading my manuscript and writing his critique, but I was honestly perplexed how he failed to “get” so many elements of my story.

I was disappointed, to be sure, but I didn’t panic because I had solid responses to his objections. I didn’t start tearing my book apart because I knew every element he questioned was integral to the story. Did my book need work? Obviously, so—I subsequently revised the version he read, adding 16,000 words, though only a small part of those words addressed his issues. Yet his critique nagged me.

Recently, I listened to him discuss the next issue he would address in his own work—a supernatural tale. His story was finished, fully fleshed out, and now, he said, he would go back and add more characterization. I sat there thinking how wrong that sounded. Finally, the reason why thunked me on the head. His method sounded wrong to me because it’s the opposite of mine.

He has a great story he wants to tell … and, by the way, there are people in the story. I want to tell you about some people … and, by the way, they have a story.

That is a definition of action-driven vs. character-driven fiction. I’m not saying one is better than the other, that plot-driven fiction can’t have good characterization, or story doesn’t matter in character-driven fiction. But I think writers take different approaches to each.

I start with just a story premise—a situation, really—and then I explore the characters in that situation: who they are, what they want, why they don’t have it. I want to see where they live, what they do for work and pleasure, who populates their lives. I have to know them inside and out. Only then can I write their story.

Tell me, what kind of fiction do you write, and which takes precedence, story or character?

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27 thoughts on “Story or character, which weighs more?

  1. I’m so focused on character, it’s difficult for me to imagine starting with the plot. I think I’m reading that in your post as well, you can’t comprehend how a story would even exist without the character who’s living it. (I’m not expressing this well, so I guess I’ll just answer the question: for me, character takes precedence.)

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  2. I am definitely character driven as well, the plot just seems to evolve out of the characters/situation for me and I don’t think I could have a plot and then work backwards on filling it with characters. We do all work differently though and you have to do what works for you!

    Perhaps this is why his feedback didn’t mesh? He was looking at it from the plot angle, and you are looking it from the characters? Different kinds of readers look for different things in a story, so while his points might be valid he’s not reading it as a character driven story so of course he will miss some of the elements you’ve put into place.

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    1. Yes, J.C., he did come at it from a different angle. Actually I wanted him to read it for just that reason. And I didn’t mean to imply that he didn’t help me take a closer look at my plot elements. I just didn’t agree that there was as little plot as he saw. 🙂

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  3. I’ve tried to write from both angles and find that plot driven stories require a lot of planning and preparation to hold the theme together, whereas character driven stories allow me to be suprised by the character as the story progresses. I also think there is more self-discovery when writing a character driven story (IMHO).

    That said, having a character driven story read by a beta looking at plot can provide insight that may be beneficial if the reader spots something that would otherwise be missed. I try to remember that not all readers are writers and not all will choose either plot or character. A well rounded story that encompasses both will be a sure winner in the marketplace (also MHO).

    I long for the day when I am more worried about the structure of my story than I am with the linquistic skill and mechanics that design it. You are very fortunate to have such a firm grasp on your writing skill that your can focus most of their effort on these details. (There is a compliment hidden in there somewhere)

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    1. Ah, Trista, you’ve probably identified my problem … I’m too lazy to write plot-driven stories! 😉 And I do love the adventure of having my characters unfold the story with all their surprising twists and turns. I agree with the self-discovery aspect too.

      Yes, I like to have both writer and non-writer betas … after all, I’m writing for mostly non-writer readers. And like I said to J.C. I particularly wanted his feedback on plot because I think he’s good at that, but it’s not something that comes easy to me.

      I found the compliment, thank you. 😀

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  4. Wait, why are my ears burning?
    : D

    While your overall assessment is right, I have to correct the notion that I said I would go back and “add characterization” —

    I plan to go back through and revise it with more easily discernible and *distinct* characterization. More immediately identifiable traits.

    …So that, as we discussed at the meeting, you can more often tell a line of dialog just by who says it, because they have a distinct way of talking.

    In my mind, the characters are distinct — I have bios and psych profiles for many! –but I am aware that in these rushed first drafts everyone is reading, I am just making sure the plot fits together — because it is a very complicated plot — and so the “readable characterization,” the elements of word choices, body movements, tics and habits, and other discernible charter traits is left for future drafts.

    All that said, yeah, I am more about plot than character — to an extent.
    Only to an extent, because the two have to go hand in hand. The initial story action “activates” the characters from their before-the-story lives, and then the character’s distinct traits — their motivations and choices — drive the plot.

    …And as I pointed out earlier: at the end of the third part, a good chunk of plot got thrown out when a charter surprised me by driving into the hero. If I was only about the plot, that could not have happened!

    Speaking of all that, I think that is the root of all the criticism of Lost: the writers cared about character to the detriment of plot. They did not care if they tied up the plot points to everyone’s expectations, as they “merely” wanted to satisfy their own sense of how the character’s personal stories should resolve.
    That left me feeling emotionally satisfied when it ended last night, but less so in retrospect.
    [And it could have been intellectually satisfying — and more emotionally satisfying! — with a few simple added actions or words that would have paid off many hanging plot points. And better tied together the two stories this season.]

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    1. Ah, Paul, you outed yourself. 😀

      And yes, I misstated. I should have said add TO the characterization. I didn’t mean to imply you hadn’t given any thought to your characters. I also understood WHY you were doing that. HOWEVER, you did write out the whole plot without this detailed characterization, which I would not be able to do. Well, at least, I wouldn’t WANT to do it because the characters ARE the story for me.

      You had to bring up LOST didn’t you? 🙂 I’m not sure exactly how you feel “in retrospect” but I completely disagree with the idea that Lindelof and Cuse (or whoever) wrote six seasons where character development was upper most. I think it’s arrogant of them to claim that those who got caught up in the island mysteries missed the point. THEY are the ones who misdirected the viewers. I would have welcomed a show that examined the themes they now claim they focused on all along. Add a little weirdness to it and I’m all there. But I absolutely think that when savvy viewers called PURGATORY in the first season (as I did after the pilot) they started throwing things … anything … in to misdirect. I actually think it’s funny that this last season’s motifs were SMOKE and MIRRORS.

      I could discuss this for hours, but I’ll shut up now. No wait, I’ll say one more thing … last view of LOST: fuselage on the beach NO SURVIVORS.

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  5. Reading, I like both. Writing, I lean to character-driven. I’ve read fast-paced, plot-driven thrillers; I know I have; I just can’t remember their titles or who wrote them. I’ve read character-driven novels that connected me to the characters, made me know them better than I know myself, and it would grieve me to finish the book. I remember those titles and who wrote them. I guess it’s easier to forget what entertains me more than what moves me on a deep emotional level.

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  6. When it comes to reading, it depends on what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes a fast-paced story that doesn’t allow you to really connect with the characters is what I want (typically a mystery or thriller, I find). When it comes to writing, I’m definitely more character-driven. I can’t say that I always think of the character first, but if the plot/idea comes first, the character is never too far behind. I’ve never had a plot with no characters, though the reverse has happened once or twice. Plot and characters are equally important to me, and I try to maintain a balance – keep it exciting, but really get to know the characters. I should add that I dislike “literature” that is all about retrospection.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Chibi. I’m much more narrow in my reading now. For the last few years, I’ve only read character-driven fiction. My only connection to plot-driven work is through an occasional movie.

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  7. Character drives plot. Plot drives character. My first thought is that I’m a character-driven writer, but upon further reflection, I couldn’t say which is most true for me, since my main character came to me as part of a plot. I guess I would like to think that my writing is story driven.

    Characters must have a story worth telling and a good story must have interesting characters. For me, plot is less than story. Plot is structure and pacing. Story is characters engaged in plot, defined by setting, illuminated by backstory, driven by conflict, and satisfied by resolution.

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    1. Susan, I agree that “Characters must have a story worth telling and a good story must have interesting characters.” And by your definition of terms, my question would be: which weighs more character or story? But maybe there is no question here.

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  8. Like Chibi, I think for me, it depends on the story. Having said that, thoughts, emotions, internal conflict and exploring personal histories are the areas of the story I excel at, I think, and enjoy writing the most. Having said THAT, ‘characterization’ – being able to tell which character is which without naming them etc. – and actually thinking up the character in the first place are failings of mine and where I need to improve.

    The plot is usually where I start, but the characters become more important to me… if I’ve done it ‘right’.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Aurora. The only time I ever start with plot/story is when I write “horror” and that’s been awhile. I expect though, in any genre writing it would be more likely you get the story idea first.

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  9. My first ‘real’ fiction piece started out as a dream of a girl in a situation. I guess then the situation is my starting point. I’ve spent a lot of time weaving a web of how she got there, what has shaped her and so on. As I write this piece, I see it in visual form, like a movie and even make notations that begin, “Scene showing…” very odd for me, wish I knew how to write a proper screenplay, but feel safer fleshing it out in a full story first. I’ll whittle it down for a film later. Then….. “Best Original Screenplay” here I come.
    : )

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    1. Jessica, my best stuff always starts with a dream. And I, too, see my story as a movie as I write, but I don’t think I want to write it as a screenplay … well, unless it gets optioned for one! 😀 May the muse be with you as you write this trilogy.

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  10. odd, in the past my name goes up there with the reply. This time, “anonymous”… well, that’s me up there, obviously technologically challenged. Still.

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  11. I need both. Strong characterization will make me care about the story. If the characters aren’t sympathetic and if I can’t figure out why I’m supposed to want to know what happens to them, then I won’t read on.

    That said, a solid, intriguing plot is crucial, too. Show me a story that’s worth telling through both character and plot. The books I remember are those that have both.

    Intriguing characters doing intriguing things in an intriguing world. Those are the books I recommend to people and read more than once. If any element is missing, the book may still be enjoyable, but I won’t read the last page and breathe, “Wow.”

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree that a great book has all the elements in balance, but I don’t think those elements have to be equal. I think the ratio depends on the category of fiction. I do love a book that makes me say, “Wow.”

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  12. I start with characters in my writing, but I’m finding if I don’t get some action in there pretty fast, it’s boooorrrriinngg and slow-going. You do a great job, Linda, of describing the distinctions between plot- and character-driven.

    I’m not a TV person and I’ve never watched LOST, but I think I’ll go thru your post and comments on it so I can catch up with what the rest of the world knows about!

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    1. Well, of course, a book would be boring with NO action, I mean, you can’t have a person just lying in bed thinking through the whole thing. But action for one person may not be action at all for another, so you have to know your intended reader. I’m a pretty laid back person and I would read a book where the main character lies in bed thinking … as long as his thoughts were interesting enough. 😉

      I don’t consider myself a TV person either. I only watch a few series, and rarely do they air during the same season. I was just instantly hooked on Lost. I like trying to solve mysteries and there were a lot of interesting characters. You should give the pilot episode a try.

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  13. I’m posting a link to this conversation on Helen Smith’s blog (a British writer I met via SheWrites, by the way.) She had a similar discussion on her Smith’s Bleakly post. Her conclusion: instead of starting with character or story, she thinks she’ll start with a positive review of the book or play that she has yet to write and work backward!

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