Thursday, August 04, 2005

Character Versus Plot

Linda brought up another aspect of writing -- the character driven writer versus the plot driven writer.

Anyone who has read my material on FM and Vision will know that I am absolutely character driven in my writing. Everything I write starts with the vision of a character, sometimes in a situation that needs explaining and sometimes not even with that much. They just appear and before long I start to see more of the world around them and begin exploring what ifs and how did they get there. But I build the world, and then the novel, around that character and the others who happen into range. The world is built for them, and it is the characters who shape the story. I know who they are, and I know what I want them to be and do, and so the world conforms to what they need to tell that particular story.

I've tried to write a plot driven story, and it just doesn't work for me. It's not that I don't care about the events, but they're not what draws me. I want to know what the people are doing -- and not just any people. They have to be people I'm interested in, for one reason or another.

But it doesn't matter if you're character driven or plot driven when you write a story. And it doesn't make a difference in whether or not you use an outline. It's an individual preference and it really doesn't have anything to do with plot first or character first. One person might start with 'A city falls into decay and revolution is coming, with a series of horrific events that drag the city to near ruin' and another starts with 'A young woman scrapes together a living in a dangerous town, and finds herself involved with revolutionists and their dangerous ploys to get control.' The plot might turn out to be remarkably alike as they both work out the steps of the revolution and the horror of the events, but they will have come to the idea from different perspectives.

Now the truth is that the plot driven writer is probably more likely to write out an outline of the events that take place because those events are the focus of his interest. But it's not really much different than the character driven writer who works out a page or two of background for the character. It's just where the initial focus starts. By the time the story is written, the readers won't be able to tell if the author used an outline, character sheets, started with the plot or started with the characters. Well, okay... sometimes you can tell a plot driven novel from a character driven one just because of the focus of the story. If a novel jumps from person to person and rarely sticks with anyone for any length of time, you are probably looking at a plot driven author who is more interested in the events than the people.

But generally they all combine and you really don't know. It's not that plot driven writers dislike characters and will never create a truly great one, or that character driven writers don't come up with fascinating plots. It's just the point where you dive into the story.

And some writers might be both, depending on the project.

I have found that I like outlines, but I write them after I've created the character and have a number of plot points where I want that person to go. Sometimes my outlines are just a few quick notes, and other times they are massive with even bits of dialogue dropped in so that I don't forget it by the time I get to the scene.

Oh, and yes -- I am a linear writer. I may see random bits and pieces in the planning phase, but the story itself unwinds like a movie for me, and I start at the opening and go to the closing. That part doesn't matter if I have an outline or not. Even if I later add in a subplot, I'll still start at the beginning and work the new material in from front to back. The idea of writing out of order is absolutely foreign to me, I suppose akin to reading the end of the book before you start. I want to take the journey from start to finish. And having an outline doesn't make a bit of difference in that respect. I study roadmaps before I go on a trip, too -- but it doesn't mean I know what I'll see there or what I'm going to say and do. That's what outlines are like for me -- even the more intensive ones I write. They're just roadmaps, some with more directions than others. Chances are that I might end up taking a few detours and skipping places I thought I would head to, but I'm always aware of where the path to the final destination is, and that I will always work my way back to it rather than wandering off and getting totally lost.


Mama Rose said...

I think what's important is that a writer figure out what it's going to take to tell the story they're working on. That's it. It makes absolutely no difference what anyone else does, other than as "things to try and see if they work". Every story is so different. I had one where outlining with index cards worked perfectely. But that approach didn't work with my current WIP. My current one needed a looser type of outline. I've done some with no outline. Some start with characters. Some with setting. Some with a title. Some with an idea. But all of my stories end up coming from character, no matter where the original idea came from.

Shadawyn said...

I don't think it's one or the other as a writer. I have stories that are plot driven and stories that are character driven, and they space out evenly. Someone might have a character-driven story, and may always have character-driven stories, but that may change someday when a very plottish idea shows up. Same the other way around.

I agree with most of your post in content, but I would have changed "writer" to "story".

Carter said...

My ideas almost always start as a vision of a character in crisis. Then, I figure out what brought them to this point and what happens next. I suppose that makes me more character-driven, but, in the end, character and plot are so intimately intertwined that neither really dominates the other.

Vera Nazarian said...

I am with you on being a Linear Writer.

I absolutely lose all enthusiasm for the work if I jump ahead. It has to unravel in order, maybe because there is always an emotional arc, and when you jump around the arc loses its cohesive tension.