Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 24, 2011

Plot vs. Character – Which Side are You On?

Before I jump into today's post, I just want to remind you to stop back on Friday for our next Fabulous Friday guest blogger, multi-published author, Louisa Bacio!

Part 1 of a series

This part brought to you by Laura Drake. Check back Monday when Fae Rowen presents the opposite viewpoint.

People have a hard time even agreeing on the definitions of plot-driven vs. character-driven. I’ve had an hour long argument with an English professor friend about whether the term “literary fiction” even exists.   I don’t want to go there again. Let’s just agree there are many shades of grey, and use Justice Potter Stewart’s porn definition,“I know it when I see it.”

The easiest way to illustrate the difference between a plot driven and character driven book is by example:

Plot-driven Stories:

Die Hard
Patriot Games
Angels & Demons
The Bourne Identity

Plot is featured prominently. The characters are, at the extreme end, only generic – there to carry out the plot.

Character-driven Stories:

Jane Eyre
The Catcher in the Rye
Native Son
Pride and Prejudice

Characters are more important than what happens. The extreme end of the spectrum prompted the term, “Navel Gazing.”

Which is better?  We all know it’s not really a war – the best books are a perfect blend of both.  Good examples that come to my mind are:

  • Gone with the Wind
  • Hunger Games
  • Avatar
  • Atlas Shrugged

Two of my favorite authors come to mind as well -- Pat Conroy and Jodi Piccoult.

When you began writing, do you recall making a conscious choice between the two?  I sure didn’t. Like your voice, your choice is influenced by your personality, your tastes and your experiences.

When you sit down to write a book, what comes to you first?

For me, it’s a character. The only part I get of plot in the beginning is the setting. The rest comes after I know my main character(s.) I really have to work at finding engaging, gripping things for my wonderful characters to do.

Plotting Tools

Since I need to focus on improving my weaknesses, I’ve amassed a lot of plotting tools. I'll share them with you here. For those of you who need help with character, check back on Wednesday - our own Fae Rowen is going to have tips for you.

  1. You may want to try an Index Card Method.
  2. I am a huge Randy Ingermanson fan. You may know him as ‘The Snowflake Guy.’ He created a plotting method that’s fascinating.
  3. Blake Snyder was an amazing teacher of screenplay writing and plotting that we lost recently. His ‘Beat Sheet’ really helps me be sure all the elements are there, in the right order. If you don’t have his book, Save the Cat on your bookshelf, you should.
  4. T.N. Tobias has an article on Ten Ways To Create a Plot Twist.
  5. Glen Strathy has written a great article, How to Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps.
  6. The amazing Donald Maas wrote an article for Writer Unboxed that may help you, entitled, The Elements of Awe.
  7. Linda George has a great blog, Plotting for Writers.
  8. Software abounds. Here's a review of 10 of them.  Storybook is free shareware. Randy Ingermanson has the Snowflake Pro.

I could go on and on, but I think that gives you enough to start with.

So now, your turn. Which side are you on -- plot or character?  What works for you? Do you have any suggestions of plotting methods for us?

0 comments on “Plot vs. Character – Which Side are You On?”

  1. I like having twists in my plot but I will say it all begins with a character. Then I take that character and see where he or she will lead me.

    I definitely think it needs to be a blend for the best result.

    1. I'm with you, Carrie - I just wish the plot part came easier to me. My brain just wants to play with the characters and not get down to work on the plot!
      It's my next goal to get better at this.

  2. Good job on this post, Laura. No question at all ... the first middle last and always that dominates everything I do are the characters. I have learned to blend the plot because I always "see" my characters where they are at the moment they arrive on the scene.

  3. Laura, thanks for the great post! I can't believe you've been holding out on me with these great links!

    I usually have a premise and some characters. There's a ton of work to have a structured plot out of the scenes that come to me. That's where you and Fae and Sharla pick me up of the floor and save my whining a$$!

  4. The characters wins out with me but plot is a huge part too. When a character pops into my head I think of the worst possible situation I can throw their personality into. Sharla Rae

    1. You're probably among the few authors I know who do both well, Sharla. And why I'm SO glad to be a part of your crit group!
      I love how you throw brilliant ideas out there - I just scribble to try to keep up.

  5. I'm with you on Ingerman. His monthly newsletters are helpful as well. I've never labeled the style of writing, but when I find the story to be more capitvating than the main character it's no longer character diven.

    Mary George

  6. I tend to take a "what-if" idea and use characters to explore it. I write with characters in mind, first and foremost, and let them uncover the plot as they go along, though with editing some plot mechanics are employed here and there. Interesting post.

  7. Great post! I always start with character, learn who they are and where they come, and then discover what it is they want. Once i know what's driving them, the plot begins to form. I like my characters and plot woven together as seamlessly as possible. Not always easy, but always a fun challenge. 🙂

    1. Challenge is right, Karen! I'm still working on that 'seamlessly' part....
      Thanks for stopping by - don't forget to stop back to hear the other side from Fae on Monday!

  8. I will go against the flow, I guess. I always start with the germ of an idea or a premise that has grabbed me by the throat. I then create characters that will be a match for my story idea. At least, that's the plan. I do find out pretty quick though, that my character has developed a mind of his/her own. We duke it out, but the character always wins and my original story idea gets tweaked accordingly. Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet is awesome. I've tried many of the tools, but like his the best.

    1. Okay Barb, so you're plot first. Can I borrow your brain when I'm stuck then?
      Interesting results - I'm surprised to hear that most comments are from Character-driven writers.
      Or maybe you plotters are just lurking until Fae posts on Monday!

    1. Thanks Angelyn - you wouldn't have wanted to be there for that - it wasn't pretty. Love your name!
      But you didn't tell me - for you, is it character or plot first?

    1. I'm with you, Alicia - but sure wish a was a bit closer to the middle on this one!
      Thanks for stopping - don't forget to come back Monday - Fae may have some links we can use for Characters too!

  9. Plot is first and foremost for me, but that's certainly no excuse for weak or generic characters.
    My characters are the road map for the plot. My story events occur in the manner I depict because the characters' personas and beliefs guide their actions. If I changed even one major character, the story line would go in an entirely new direction.

    This is a great subject for a series of blog posts 😀 Thanks for sharing!

  10. I start with a character and a plot idea but really have to wrestle with the plot to bring it into the story. If I could, I'd just write dialogue and introspection and forget the plot. 🙂

    Great post and links, Laura. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Great to 'see' you here, Sheila - wow you're everywhere! Great networking, getting your name out there.

      I'm just like you - only it's usually a character and a theme that starts the whole thing for me. Thank God for my crit group, who help me find things for the characters to do that fits the theme!

  11. Ive always started with character and a general scenario such as lovers reunited or opposites thrown together, But the characters develop and show the way for the plot to go. Some times I have to do some serious brainstorming with my DH on plot, but always constrained by the characters. A plot that requires someone to act out of character is nearly always jettisoned.

  12. The best tool I've had for novel writing so far has been Scrivener. They've released a free beta for Windows (it's a $40 license for a Mac, and will be the same for Windows when the beta is finished... not sure when that will be) and it's FANTASTIC. Since I started using it, my characters and plot have been much easier to weave together, I can reference details and points much easier, and there's even an option to archive webpages under "Research." It's amazing.

    Here, have a link: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivenerforwindows/ =]

    1. Okay, Kit, you talked me into it! Kitty, a frequent responder and guest blogger here also told me it was wonderful, and I've been meaning to check it out. Do you think it would work for a pantser like me?

      Thanks for the tip - I can't believe I forgot that one!

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