Plot vs. Character

Posted Jan 26 2012, 2:48 pm in , , , , , , ,

Obviously you need both character and plot for a story to be any good. It’s not that one is better than another. If there is more emphasis on one over the other, it’s simply a different kind of story. When I used to teach creative writing, I explained this to my students in the following way:

A plot-driven story is like an action film. When you see an action flick and you need to describe it, you might mention who the characters are, but you focus more on what happened. “There was a guy who had to rescue his wife and he did this and then the bad guys did this and then this blew up…” You get the point.

A character-driven story is more like a soap opera. It doesn’t matter so much what happens because we’re invested in the lives of the characters. When we describe a soap opera, we talk about the characters and what’s going on in their lives. When we’re invested in the characters, we can accept re-hashed plot lines (really, how many time can a terror plot with a bomb really land in Port Charles?) because we want to see how these characters will handle it.

It’s the same for TV shows. I’ve said lots of times already that it’s usually characters that draw me and and keep me watching a show. Even the cop shows that I watch, which by definition tend to be episodic (solve a new crime each week — plot), I keep watching because I love the characters. Shows that don’t get you involved in the characters’ lives run the risk of losing you. Honestly, I don’t know how the Law & Order franchise lasted so long. I watched for many seasons, but it got old. There are only so many ways you can rape, murder, or kidnap someone.

This season, though, there are actually 2 shows that are heavily plot-driven that I’m sucked into. One of them, Revenge, I talked about last month. In addition to being heavy on plot, this one also has a great cast of characters and I have a lot of sympathy for the main character.

A new show that has just started that I’m really digging is Alcatraz. For those of you unaware, Alcatraz is about finding the ’63s. In 1963, 302 inmates were supposedly transferred out of Alcatraz when the prison was closed. Now, these prisoners are showing up and committing new crimes. Here’s a trailer:

Each week, a new prisoner is being hunted by a super secret government organization, a regular cop, and a comic book author who is an expert in Alcatraz. We’re given some background into these characters, but not enough (at least not yet) for me to care about them. I don’t want to know what’s going on in their lives. I want to see them catch the bad guys.

I think what works for both of these shows is that beyond the episodic nature, there is an overall story arc that keeps going. Each week, Emily Thorne in Revenge targets a new person to ruin, but her end game is to bring down the Graysons. Each small bit of revenge has an impact on that family.

In Alcatraz, we want to know where these 302 men have been. We want to know who’s pulling the strings and releasing them to commit more crimes. We want to know why they’re not discombobulated by the world that is so different from 1963 and how they know about cell phones. We’re dying to figure out why some of the supposed good guys were actually working at Alzactraz in 1963 but they haven’t aged.

Although I am a self-professed character person, it’s the ongoing suspense that keeps me coming back for more with these shows.

I think the same holds true for series books. If there is an end game, an over-arching story, the books are more unputdownable. If it’s an ongoing series with the same characters but it’s just episodic I’m not going to stay as long. That’s not to say there isn’t a huge market for those books. Who wouldn’t want to be Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton? But look at the difference between those and Harry Potter.

Are you a character or plot person? Have you tried out Alcatraz? If so, what do you think?



4 responses to “Plot vs. Character”

  1. Linda Adams says:

    I’m a plot-driven person. I’m not sure I agree with your definitions though — having it be like an action film would lead people to think it’s about bombs blowing up, gunfire, etc.. Mystery novels tend to be plot driven, since the focus of the story is on catching the murderer, but it may have no action whatsoever in it. Instead, the circumstances force the story to move forward. In character-driven, it’s the decisions the characters make that move the story forward.

    From what I understand, plot-driven writers can have trouble getting emotion into the story and character-driven have trouble getting enough plot into the story.

    • When I used those definitions, I was using them with teenagers, so simple was best. But you have a point – it’s not about bombs, but when you describe even a mystery it’s about the action.

      I’m opposite from you — I’m a character person and what you say about getting enough plot is something I struggle with on every manuscript.

      Thanks for commenting

  2. Emma Burcart says:

    I’m definitely a character person, when it comes to books and TV shows. I think the plot is super important too, but if I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about what happens to them.

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