Split Personality: Character versus Plot

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When I was writing Royal Street, the book coming out next year, I had a series of manuscript exchanges with an online critter. We liked each other’s writing but came away perplexed. I thought his story rambled; he didn’t understand my character’s inner motivation.

Finally, he figured it out. “You write plot-driven fiction,” he told me. “I write character-driven fiction. You start with an idea for a story; I start with an idea for a character and then figure out what her story is.” Guilty as charged. I come up with an idea for a book, then figure out who needs to play my roles and how they will be motivated. Since that exchange, I’ve been more conscious of trying to get to know my characters and their motivations and what will bring them to life on the page. It’s still a struggle at times.

Now that I’m writing fiction, I read fiction differently. I can tell a plot-driven book from a character-driven book, and am always on the prowl for books that do both well. Doesn’t mean that one type of book is any better or worse than the other, or even that one sells better than the other. But doing both well is an art I appreciate when I find it.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books are plot-driven. Her characters aren’t deep and soulful, but they’re fun and we care about them. They zoom along at a rapid-fire pace, and drag us with them faster than we can decide who’s sexier: Morelli or Ranger.

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (regardless of writing quality) is character-driven. Even if Bella is a dishrag, she’s all about the emotion. And not much happens in the books, plot-wise. In book one, girl meets good vampire and falls in love. Girl encounters bad vampire who wants to eat her. Good vampire saves girl from bad vampire. The end.

Definitely not plot-driven.

Who blends the two well? My personal favorite right now is Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Mercy is a deep, well-rounded character involved in intricate plots that twist and turn through page after riveting page. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, another favorite, started out as plot-driven but gradually deepened Harry’s character as the series progressed.

Which do you like better–plot-driven or character-driven? Or does it matter, as long as the story grips you and doesn’t let you go till the end?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

4 thoughts on “Split Personality: Character versus Plot

  1. This post only confirms that I *need* to pick up Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books. ; )

    I’ve considered plot “vs.” character in the past & I, too, am always looking for authors that combine them well. Twilight was too “rambly” for me & I didn’t even finish the first book… but at the same time, I love a good, fun, deep character. (On the Twilight note – what drove me nuts was how often she said he was gorgeous & talked about his eyes… sometimes enough is enough!)…

    Well, Twilight aside, I think finding the plot & character balance is very hard & can also be influenced by the genre in which you work. Romance – I expect more character. Suspense – more plot. : )

    In the end, though, I’m actually happy with plot or character driven books just as long as they keep me reading to the end. : D

  2. I can’t say I prefer one over the other. I like a fun, adventurous, well-paced plot but I also want to care about the characters.

    I started out writing plot driven books. More and more I’m writing character driven stories.

    I’m not impressed by Twilight although my daughter-in-law loves it. It seems pretty lame to me.

  3. Sounds like we all agree we need both. (Christa–you really HAVE to read Patricia Briggs…in fact, the first Mercy book might be my giveaway next week!) And argh, but don’t get me started on Twilight, although any of us would kill for those sales.

  4. I prefer the Wolf/Omega series to Mercy but I still read Mercy.

    I hated Twilight – Didn’t read past chapter three…even tried reading the end and still didn’t care. It might be the fact that there is no plot. I love plot.

    Thus why my characters are not the best they could be. This year my goal is to work on my characters so that they are better motivated (hmm, motivation…what is that? 🙂 )