Skip to main content

Characters versus Plot

Because a novel is enjoyed over a more extended time period, structure becomes an important component of making sure the experience of reading the novel is, in fact, enjoyable. Structure allows the average reader to follow along with plot, make certain assumptions later borne out or revised, and generally feel grounded in the events of the story.

Novels come in all manner of shapes and sizes obviously but today I’d like to highlight the differences between a plot-driven and character-driven story.
A plot driven novel is one where events drive the course of the story. The protagonist may play an active, even determative role in those events, but the force that compels each page to be turned is the need, on the reader’s part, to see how ‘things will play out.’ We can call this suspense, but I think that suspense is only one thread tying together a novel of this type. One recent example of this is John Scalzi’s very fun “Lock In.” Scalzi’s protagonist, Chris Shane, a well-rounded character, acts almost exclusively in the service of a murder mystery. What drives him is the same thing driving us through each page, a need to know and understand.

A character driven novel is one where the events are secondary to the exploration of the characters. I’ve read a number of books in this vein, but for me I’ll always attach this writing style to Elmore Leonard. In novels such as Get Shorty and Tishimongo Blues, Leonard draws together a cast of compelling individuals, makes plain their driving needs and fears and then lets the plot flow from their actions. Again, there might be external forces that mix this dynamic up, but fundamentally a character-driven novel is one where the characters determine and drive the story.

Recently I finished reading M.R. Carey’s zombie novel “The Girl with All of the Gifts.” This was a nearly perfect example of how to marry these two diverse elements together effectively into a balanced and proportional whole. While there are certainly events external to the characters of the story: the zombie plague itself, the creation of the Echo Base to investigate the intelligent zombies - most of the events flow from the concerns of the five main characters.

Carey has a clever way of introducing these characters. For the first third of the book it isn’t necessarily clear this book will even be an ensemble work. We are introduced to the world of Melanie’s confinement through Melanie’s own limited perspective. Names are withheld, suggested unimportant, a reader might even wonder if this story will be solely taken up in this child’s experiences. Then there is a perspective shift, and another, and finally we have five compelling characters trekking out over the blasted post-apocalyptic world of the novel.
In terms of events in the novel, there are really only two: the attack by ‘junkers' that marks the end of the first act of the novel and a final confrontation in the shadow of a vast fungal mass blighting central London. However, one of the joys of this novel is that it doesn’t really drag during its long middle section between these two events. The reason is Carey effectively balances the characters against each other, placing them together increasingly fraught and compromised situations as the novel progresses through its second act. One can envision Carey drawing up a spreadsheet with each chapter involving two or three encounters with characters, making sure that each character has a chance to share a room with one or two of the others.

Carey’s gift, as a writer, is that none of this feels like the result of anything so antiseptic as a plot spreadsheet, it feels like the organic product of a long and arduous journey through the wilderness. Each conversation supplies a bit more information about the characters and the world. As the revelations build on top of each other, each of these encounters becomes more charged with conflict and drama.

Writing a novel is a different exercise than a short story or even a novella. Where shorter pieces can focus in one single event or conflict, novels must, by necessity, make greater demands upon a reader’s patience and attention. The plot-driven style of novel writing seeks to hold a reader’s attention through action and the responses of the characters. At it’s worst, a plot-driven novel can feel like nothing more than a bad comic book, where each chapter is a big splash page grabbing at the reader’s attention steadily building up a immunity to such flashy overtures. Character-driven pieces can feel claustrophobic and hermetically sealed. If the four or five characters given prominence in the story are really the only forces in the world of the novel, it begins to strain credulity.

Of the many reasons to read “The Girl With All the Gifts,” certainly one of the best, for me, was reading a talented writer unroll a different path, a hybrid narrative driven by characters but unafraid of them coping with circumstances beyond their control.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Review of I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski

Even 23 years later, I remember 1994 and Kurt Cobain's death. I experienced that moment as a kind of inside out personal crisis. I felt ashamed by his death. As though his exit in someway indicted my own teenage miseries. "I wish I was like you," goes the verse in 'All Apologies,' "Easily amused." I felt as though a check I hadn't remembered writing had just been cashed. 


SP Miskowski's book, named after the first half of that line, is in the words of another reviewer, a novel that shouldn't work. The narrator is unlikeable, unreliable, and dead. The plot is almost entirely told as a flashback and long sections of the novel concern the inner processes of the writer. The daily grind to summon up enough self-esteem to carry a sentence to its logical conclusion is a real struggle, people, but it ain't exactly riveting.

But the thing is, this novel works. It is one of the best things I've read all year and a real achievement in weird ficti…

"A Breath from the Sky" Story Announcement!

I am thrilled to share the news my story, "Promontory," will appear in an upcoming anthology of unusual possession stories published by the incredible Martian Migraine Press. The anthology, "A Breath from the Sky,"puts together a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale and twenty other atypical stories of possession. Judging from the cover and the list of impressive authors, I'm anticipating pure awesomeness. "Promontory" is a possession story and one of my more overtly horror tales, so I'm overjoyed that it found a host, er, home here. I am sharing the Table of Contents below, as well as a link to the announcement on the Martian Migraine website to provide a sense of what this collection will be about. The cover is amazing, the other authors selected for the collection are amazing, and I have to say, having a story appear alongside a classic tale like HP's "Colour Out of Space," feels pretty darn amazing. I hope to provide more information abou…

In Defense of Brevity

As a writer of short speculative fiction, I am also a reader. I was a reader first and my love of the genre leads me to want to write short fiction. I think one of the most important things a writer can do is read contemporary's work. If nothing else, you're likely to be entertained - there's a great amount of stupendous short fiction available out there for exactly nothing. But it also tends to helps to develop craft. 
Long-time readers of this blog know I write up recommendations of a few short stories each month I really enjoyed. "Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper by Carl Wiens" was my favorite story of the year. The first line of this story pretty much sums it up: "The time traveler set up a studio apartment in Abraham Lincoln’s skull in the frozen moment before Booth’s bullet burst through and rewired history," but I also enjoyed "The Girl Who Escaped from Hell" By Rahul Kanakia and "Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies," by Brooke Bol…