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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.
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