Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 29, 2011

Plot vs. Character: The Other Side of The Story OR Plot vs Character: WITS Bloggers Throw It Down!

by Fae Rowen

Before we get started, I'd like to announce the winner of a six-pack of my cards.   Janel is the lucky commenter.   Janel, if you would e-mail Writers in the Storm with your mailing address, I'll send your cards right away.

And now to today's topic:

Laura proposed this tag-team duo of blogs (AKA throwdown)  with this final challenge: "SO you should work on the one you suck at."  For me, that would be character-driven writing.

Gee, thanks a lot, Laura.  I love you, too.

First, I want to proclaim that I am a plot-driven writer.  Once I get my plot, I think about my characters in terms of who could survive what I'm going to throw at them and why they can survive.  I live in their backstory, flesh it out and revise that backstory until I know enough about the characters to do a first draft.

Did you see those pictures Laura used to show plot-driven movies?  Now I know why I like plot-driven stories.  Hubba-hubba.

But, what if my characters came to me first?  I have to admit, sometimes they do.

But here we go, into the land of character-driven writing.  Maybe I'll suck a little less at it after I study a bit.  Besides, it's always good to have more skills in your toolbox.

First, I need definitions, even though they may be disputed.  Here's what I liked best:

In plot-driven stories, actions propel the story.  An event occurs and the character reacts.  In character-driven stories there is a character trigger, an event occurs, and the character reacts.  (No wonder I write plot-driven...less steps. Ha!)

First, I have to say that I just saw (and enjoyed) the movie, The Help.  Though plot, because of the social time and setting, was important, it was definitely a character-driven movie.  Now I understand this whole throwdown a little better.

As I explored on the web, I was surprised there was so much furor over the two different types of writing.  Who cares what drives your story as long as it's well written?  As Laura wrote in Wednesday's blog, in a character-driven work:

"Characters are more important than what happens."

Hopefully, if you're a character-driven writer, or if (like me) you could use a little help in that arena, the resources below will help you write more compelling stories.

From Fae's library

It's important that you know what makes your character tick.  And get ticked off.  And how they show those emotions. Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon is my gold standard for this.

In character-driven fiction, assuming you have more than one character in your book, you need to know who has the most at stake in the scene. That's the character whose head you need to be in. Write the scene in their point of view.

Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite sci-fi writers, has a wonderful book on Characters & Viewpoint.

To make sure your characters are not one-dimensional, Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon, is helpful. I also refer to What Would Your Character Do? by Eric and Ann Maisel. The Maisels' book contains personality quizzes that can be fun for you to take to find out more about your characters and their triggers.

A couple of fun, and also useful, books are Sun Signs for Writers by Bev Walton-Porter and Love Types by Dr. Alexander Avila.  The first classifies characters with the familiar Aries, Scorpio zodiac labels--which you don't have to reveal in your book.  The second has a test for you (or your character) to determine your love type.  Are you a mystic writer, a general, a wheeler-dealer or another interesting type?

My last two recommendations come from the land of science, where I live.  They are a little "drier" but you can mine them for a wealth of writing gold if you're so inclined.  You don't have to read them at one sitting, after all.  A few pages at a time works just fine.  When you need to work on a new character, you can read the next chunk.  A  free download of  Please Understand Me, Character & Temperament Types by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates contains a self-test for those of you who like that sort of thing.  If you're a Meyers-Briggs afficionado, you don't need this book.

The other is Brain Sex, The Real Difference Between Men & Women by Anne Moir and David Jessel.  Great title, dry scientific reading, so check out some pages before you buy it.  I use it occasionally, but when I need it, it's worth it.

Finally, I have the Archetype Cards deck made by Caroline Myss.  Although I use them in other ways, I shared them with Laura, Jenny and Sharla and they thought they would be a wonderful tool for character development.  Lots of fun, too.

For those of you who can't wait for a book delivery or a trip to the library to try your hand at character-driven writing, here are some web links.  I must warn you that I was surprised to find that most sites about characters and writing offered classes or paid lessons.  These don't.

Simple Machines Forum has an essay about the plot vs character "fight" in the fantasy world (where I write) that is fun and enlightening.

Writers Store has an article by Martha Alderson, M.A. that contains a nifty test to see which kind of a writer you are.  I must admit I don't agree with the plot-driven writer as always being an outliner-structured writer, since I don't write that way.  What fun would it be to know everything that's going to happen in your story before you write it?

At The 15-Minute Movie Method we're told that memorable movies are character-driven and that plot-driven movies are only temporarily entertaining.  (I include this just to show I can be unbiased for two minutes.)  But actually, it got me to thinking that although I may write my novel from the plot-driven perspective, my characters are not cardboard, as The 15-Minute author postulates--forgettable, and therefore I must disagree with that idea.  Heck, you remember Rambo, right?

Now if you want a serious 6-minute Powerpoint lesson, watch Character-driven vs. Plot-driven Writing by Leigh Barbour for definitions and how both styles are written. She shares that Shakespeare was a plot-driven guy!

This link has some interesting situational exercises to complete for your characters.  You can come up with your own ideas (oops, plot-driven sneaks in) after trying these.

Many authors maintain a website that includes a variety of tips for writing.  Try visiting your favorite authors' sites and look for articles, lists or lessons on the craft of writing.  Doesn't it make sense to learn some "how to's" from someone whose reading you enjoy?

Hopefully as I work on my new novel, I'll suck a little less and my beloved critique group won't have to point out that my characters are one-dimensional.  Thanks, Laura.

So, what do you think?  Is it important to know whether you're a plot-driven or character-driven writer?  Do you have a definite preference for what you read?  More importantly, which side wins the throwdown?

0 comments on “Plot vs. Character: The Other Side of The Story OR Plot vs Character: WITS Bloggers Throw It Down!”

  1. What a great list! I'll definitely be sitting down and checking out all of the links today. I'm delighted to have won the cards, but I can't seem to find an email address to contact you, which could very well be due to a lack of coffee this morning. 🙂

  2. Fae, thanks for such a thoughtful post and for doing so much research to "support" your thesis 🙂
    Characters might float around in my brain wanting to find a "home" or a story in which to settle, but human consequences both comic and tragic is what percolates on the other side of my brain. I see a movie, if you will. Some of them play out in hi-def, wide screne technicolor, while moody black and white people in shades of grays appear on an old 13" TV. Love both of your arguments, but cannot declare a "winner." Instead of thinking your characters are one-dimensional, think of them instead as shadows you have yet to flesh out. I don't care which comes first, the chicken or the egg ... either way I have a meal to cook. Your plots are places and consequences waiting for the cast of characters to show up on the set. It began with a little girl and a dog until she opened the door and was no longer in Kansas.

    1. Funny you should mention the movie in the brain. That's how I started "writing" my first book. Every night as I fell asleep this movie would start playing in my brain. I would change scenes and dialogue and develop the plot every night. My characters must have felt like they were in "Groundhog Day"! When I talked to an English teacher friend she suggested that I start writing the movie down. Voila, the movie started playing at the computer! That's often still the way I write.

  3. Wow! Awesome article, Fae. Just when my list of craft books was shrinking (only had 5 left to read) here comes a new grouping. Thanks 🙂

  4. I liked Ramblngsfromtheleft's definition of how character and plot go hand in hand. I love to write in first-person POV and really get into the head of one character, seeing the world through his/her eyes. But where would s/he be without a world to live in and react to, with all sorts of things happening around him/her - "places and consequences for the cast of characters to show up on the set"?
    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Patty. My hat's off to you, for being able to pull off first person POV. I can't seem to get all the information/emotion/plot on the page that way. Of course, that probably has to do with me not being such a good character-driven writer. Oh, well. That gives me something to strive for.

  5. As someone who sits solidly in the middle of character-driven and plot-driven, my hat goes off to you AND Laura! I've got the best critique group on the planet. Did you see what I called y'all in my post over on Gene's blog last Friday? Pinch World Builders, Pinch Steamy Scene writers....

    Good times!

    1. You know me, Jenny. I freely admit I need all the help I can get. And I appreciate all that all of you have done to make my writing better. Even when I didn't necessarily want to hear it! Heh Heh!

    1. Oh, Les, thank you so much. When I wrote the blog last week everything worked, but somehow something went wrong. I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know and to give me the fix. Now if I could just get WordPress to let me edit the link, I'd be in business. I'm working on it.
      Thanks again,
      P.S. I spent a good deal of time at your photography site. Wow! I came back from safari and am still quite daunted by hundreds of "raw" pictures on my new digital camera.

      1. I use Adobe Lightroom to manage my picture collection. I have about 15,000 but one of my buddies, a wedding photographer, has 60,000 and his collection is growing much faster than mine. I'm sure it could handle yours.

        I heard it was on sale at Amazon recently. If you go that route, you can visit the 'Links' section of my blog for a very long mashup of videos and articles that will teach you how to use it. You might also want to check some of those videos before you buy to get a flavor for what it will do for you. If you decide to go this route I would also recommend you get a copy of Scott Kelby's Lightroom 3 book http://kelbytraining.com/product/the-adobe-photoshop-lightroom-3-book-for-digital-photographers-2/.

        1. Thanks for your generous help, Les. I just may become a much better photographer with your help. Your site and photos(!) are amazing.
          I'll be checking in often.

  6. This is like saying chicken vs. egg -- for me, there is no vs. You need both chicken and egg (and I'm not sure which is plot and which is character, you're story is out of luck if you're missing on one of 'em). Personally, I think the best stories come out of character, and putting them first, but that's my reading taste, too. This is particularly true in romances, which work better if they're character driven. I've seen too many folks who put the plot first, and it comes out contrived and forced onto those poor characters.

    But your list has a lot of the same books I've used a lot--and I'd add two more: Dwight Swain's Techniques for A Selling Fiction Writer, and Robert McKee's Story (get the CD, the book is dense--packed full of info, but it's like trying to cram for a college class).

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Shannon! I agree with you - personally I think the strongest story is a perfect blend of both - ala Jodi Picoult.

      I have both those on my bookshelves as well - thanks for the reminder!

    2. Hi Shannon,
      I was surprised how excitable some of the writings were on this "controversy." I never knew there was so much to do about it. Give me a good story with characters I can connect with and I'm happy. Special effects are a nice extra.:) Good to hear from you.

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