Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Character is king (...or queen) by Leah St. James #amwriting

The Plot Master (TPM) and I watched The Martian the other night. I had never read the book by Andy Weir, but the story of the self-published novelist rising to mega success, followed by a mega hit movie, always inspired me, and it's been on my "watch" list since it came out.


For whatever reason, TPM wasn’t all that keen on watching, but I talked him into it. Within the first few minutes as we followed the adventures of the Mars explorers, I was hooked, exclaiming things like, “This is fascinating!” Meanwhile TPM was watching half-heartedly and playing solitaire on his tablet.

When the crisis stranded poor Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on this uninhabitable piece of rock, his crewmates thinking him dead, I was curled up on the couch in a fetal position, biting my fingernails, and TPM had started to take interest.

According to the movie’s website, the film lasts 143 minutes, although I was completely unaware of the passage of time. In fact, I only paused the video once for a break...which is significant since I’m a serial pause-for-breaker. Somewhere in there TPM put down his tablet, and when the final credits rolled, he said, “That was excellent.” High praise from TPM. Even more striking, for once he had no comments on what he would have done differently, plot-wise, no suggestions for improvement.

It got me thinking about plot vs. character and which drives a story. (It also convinced me to put the book on my reading list!)

As a reader, I generally tend toward the character end of the see-saw. I read to find out what’s going on with the characters and their relationships, and how they react to the action around them. To me the pickles they get themselves into are sort of secondary, or interchangeable. Substitute car chase for martial arts butt-kicking—that type of thing. Or in a romance novel, substitute discovery of the hero’s past mistake for discovery of something he did two days ago. So for me, the story isn't so much about what the characters do as how those plot turns affect them.


But with The Martian, I was completely absorbed in the plot, while almost ignoring the character. Not that Mark Watney wasn't likeable, just that the situation was so compelling he was almost secondary.



But then I thought about it a bit more.

Certainly any of the astronauts on the mission would have done what they could to save themselves. Probably, since they are all scientists of one form or another, each would have approached the situation methodically, forming a hypothesis for each problem, then testing the theories. At least in the beginning. But how many would have persevered through the seeming insurmountable challenges, right up to the final moments, as Watney did? (I’m trying to NOT give away the ending for any who haven’t seen the movie or read the book.)

Finally I decided it was that component of his character (calm, steadfast perseverance in the face a situation that would have reduced most of us to a wailing pile of self-pity) that drove the plot, and ultimately the story. So for me, it’s a character story after all.





Then I got to thinking about all my favorite books and movies and tried to figure if it was plot or character, and again, I chose character.

Gone with the Wind, for example: Aside from this Yankee's curiosity of the setting in the ante-Bellum South, it was the characters and their relationship that intrigued me more than the story of war.

Or Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale:  Two sisters in German-occupied Paris (WWII) and how they deal with the horrors of war. While the situation and setting are compelling (emotional and heartbreaking), how the sisters react is what tells the story.



What about romance?
Since the ending of a romance novel is, to a great extent, predetermined by the genre, romance writers have to be pretty clever and skilled to create suspense, either plot-wise or relationship-wise, to keep readers turning the pages. But again, that’s why I read: To find out how the characters react to those plot twists and how they achieve their HEA/HFN ending.


What do you think? Plot or character—which drives the story for you?


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Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the power of love. Learn more at her website, or visit her on Facebook.





17 comments:

RE Mullins said...

Since, for the most part, I read for escapism I also look for books with interesting characters that I find appealing. I want to know what makes them tick - warts and all. How they handle a bit of conflict and how it makes them grow in the end. The HEA is a must for me.

Margo Hoornstra said...

I would ditto what Robin said. Characters are the meat of the story. Plot is simply the gravy they float around in. (Not sure where that metaphor came from, but it’s early yet ;-) Now you and TPM have me hooked. Hope I can get my own PM to watch this movie with me. Although I have no doubt he too will begin the virtual journey with iPad in hand, solitaire on the screen.

Jannine Gallant said...

I start writing with a plot "what if" in mind. Then I create characters who work in that scenario. I came home from RT with bags of books and started reading a contemporary by a best selling author who's suspense books I've always loved. The characters are interesting, but I'm getting bored. Nothing is freaking happening! I want a plot! I want action! Yeah, yeah, yeah, they have issues. Don't we all? When I read, I want tension and excitement from the outside to challenge them. I guess this is why I don't read much contemporary. I'm a plot driven reader and writer. Take a good thriller for example. The characters are mostly interchangeable, and the plot rules! Your methodical Martian sounds like he would have been pretty boring if he was still on earth. Just saying...

Brenda Whiteside said...

I'm a character person all the way. When I write, that's where I start. Characters are what come to me first. And by the way, I've seen the movie a couple of times and could see it again. I suppose I should add the book to my TBR list.

Leah St. James said...

Jannine -- I had the same thought about the Matt Watney character. He is definitely low-key, although not robotic or lifeless in any way. He has a great sense of humor, too. I didn't go into detail because I didn't want to spoil the story, but it was his reaction, his perseverance, that kept me watching. And that's why I think I'm drawn more to the characters than the plot. But I know what you mean about action-less stories. They can bore me, too. (And that's probably why I can rarely read literary fiction!)

Brenda Whiteside said...

You are so right, Jannine. When I first started writing, I wanted to write stories about people and what they felt and how they coped, etc. But I soon got bored with myself. LOL You have to have a compelling and suspenseful situation to put your characters into. I've tried reading straight contemporary romance and I don't "care" what happens to them. But I still start with the characters, then the setting, and then what has happened and what will happen.

Leah St. James said...

I read for escapism, too, Robin. I started adding a bunch of comments about how important setting is, then figured I was getting into the weeds (as usual) and deleted. :-) But yeah...take me away, give me interesting characters, a good romance and an ending that doesn't make me cry. :-)

Leah St. James said...

I love your analogy, Margo! It's exactly what I meant! I hope you get to see it soon. (We found it for free on FX...no commercials!) And I hope if you do, I haven't over-hyped it.

Leah St. James said...

I think that's why serials are so popular, Brenda...we get attached to the characters and want to read more about them, about their next adventures.

Andrea Downing said...

It's a strange business, because I think most authors come up with at least the idea/the bones of the plot and then the characters develop. At least I do. But as a dyed in the wool pantser, my stories are always character-driven--the characters are telling me constantly what they're going to do. As both Jannine and Brenda have pointed out, you have to have a compelling situation to put your characters into. Someone just sitting there doing nothing is not going to be interesting for very long. A book isn't dinner party conversation.

Leah St. James said...

I start with a framework, Andi, but it doesn't take me long to go off plan! :-) Like your characters, mine often take over. I look at my outline and hear the character saying, I am NOT doing that! :-) I like your reference to a dinner party conversation...so true!

Alison Henderson said...

I loved The Martian, too, Leah! When writing, I usually start with the characters and a "situation." Then I work on the plot. Since I switched from historical romance to what I'm calling "romantic mystery" several years ago, plot has become increasingly important. The plot on the last one almost did me in, but with a lot of help, I beat it into submission!

Leah St. James said...

Alison, I agree that plot is essential, of course. How many times have we read books that are beautifully written but have no excitement or adventure or suspense, so fall flat? (This writing business is not as easy as some think!)

Diane Burton said...

Hubs & I really enjoyed The Martian. How Mark Watney figured out how he was going to survive until they came back to rescue him (he assumed they would) was fascinating. He had to "science the sh*t out of it." Love that statement. His humor relieved the deadly serious situation. My stories come to me as a character in a situation. Since I love action/adventure, I put my characters in bad situations and watch them develop as they work their way to safety. Watching them develop is my fav part. Which is stronger: plot or character? For me, they're equal.

Leah St. James said...

I loved that line, too, Diane. :-) I was thinking of you as I watched the movie, about the amount of detail you need to develop and work into the story when you're building a sci-fi world.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Setting! (In my books, setting is a character!) And in the Martian, is it ever! Anyway, the magic among plot, setting, and characters muddling about on their way to understanding what it means to be human...all have to be there...in artful, interesting and surprising ways. Great post, Leah!

Leah St. James said...

I agree, Rolynn, the setting is like a character. It can cause all sorts of problems (like The Martian), draw the reader into a magical, make-believe escape, and even save the day. :-)