Plots or Peoples

Posted on December 7, 2015


Look!  I embedded a thing!

I was hoping to have my first draft finished this weekend.  The boy child pounding on the door and demanding my attention put paid to that plan.  Two more days.  It should take me two more days.

I twittered the above last night when I couldn’t get my brain to shut down long enough to let me sleep.  I said it because  I’ve tied all my dangling threads together.  The characters are rushing into the last confrontation and the conclusion of their storylines.  I know how this ends.  They don’t.  They each have separate goals.  Obviously most of those goals stand in opposition to each other.  The thrilling conclusion would be less thrilling if everyone got together to sing  kumbaya.  Trust me, there is no kumbaya.

Given what I’ve been doing, I’ve been thinking a great deal of character motivations within the plot of my draft.  I also watched Shatner’s documentary about the first three seasons of Star Trek TNG last night and was struck by one of the writers saying the show improved immensely in season three when they switched from plot driven shows to character driven.  I won’t argue that the show improved in season three and onward. The statement did get me thinking about the differences between character and plot driven stories.

My google-fu leads me here when looking for definitions of plot and character driven stories.   I think it’s a fairly standard definition.  I also think it’s complete bollocks.

I wrote bollocks.

Here’s why.  In the vasty depths of my experience, having finished 90% of a rough draft and having aborted so many other stories the distinction between the two isn’t so clear.

Chuck Wendig, whose blog you should be reading, especially if you like salty language, writes about craft.  A lot.  All the time.  He’s a major proponent of outlining, any kind of outlining.  It doesn’t matter how detailed just outline something.  But he also says his writing is character driven writing.  His characters shape and inform the plot.  Wendig’s definition and Dorrance’s definition don’t match.  One is that character development is the plot.  The other is living, engaging characters are what make character driven fiction.

I find myself more in the Wendig camp.  There’s a couple of reasons for that.  I don’t read a lot of and I certainly don’t write anything considered literary fiction.  There are some stereotypes about what’s considered literary fiction that I don’t necessarily agree with but if the trope fits.  Dorrance’s definition of plot driven is that your characters are reacting to outside stimulus.  But that would tie character driven into that definition as well.  Most books I read now have an event kicking off the plot.  Since I read mostly genre fiction it’s usually an explosion, frequently magical or having to do with a reactor overloading.

But those books considered plot driven are also focused on character growth.  Granted, the characters are forced into the growth or are reacting and growing because of outside stimulus.  But I would say that all characters, even in character driven stories, are reacting to outside stimulus.  No one decides they are going to change on their own.  There’s always something that triggers or forces a change.  The laws of motion apply to the human psyche as well as to objects.

Wendig’s definition is that engaging characters are what make character driven fiction.  I tend to agree with that because I think Dorrance’s version of plot driven fits what we genre mole-people refer to as idea stories. Hard Sci-fi stories are usually held up as examples of this.  Early to mid Asimov is probably the best example.  Okay, Asimov in general.  Anything where an event occurs and the characters are incidental decorations.

Even loosening the definitions, shifting them to fit what I think is a better reflection of the current state of fiction still doesn’t work.  At least for trying to define my current work.  Which is where my tweetery comes in.  I’ve known for a very long time how the story begins and how the story ends.  I’ve known  the three primary players, although all three have changed remarkably since I began this process.

So by the first definition I have created 90% of a plot driven novel.  My characters have all responded to an external stimulus and are rushing headlong into the dramatic conclusion.  But.

Always a but.  But the thick middle muddle of the story bears no resemblance to what I planned originally.  This is because of how my characters reacted and changed.  They changed internally and their changes affected the story world around them.

As an aside, I keep hearing how writing the middle is the worst part.  I didn’t find that to be true.  The worst part for me was writing the beginning.   Granted, I think my beginning might be a touch long.  I think. Maybe part of it will be counted as middle.  It’s not like there are solid definitions for these things.  Probably.  I don’t have a fine arts degree and will never be getting one.  Anyway.

So I have a beginning of a story kicked of by an EVENT perpetrated by my antagonist.  See, I do know technical terms.  The event and the reactions by the characters to it lay out the middle.  The middle focuses on the characters and their reactions and how they are changing.  The only one not changing in some significant way is my antagonist.  He doesn’t need to.  And now I’m working on an end that character choices and character reactions and character changes have led to.

But I know the end.  I knew the end almost as soon  as I knew the beginning.  So did my plot drive the characters or did the characters drive my plot?

I feel that I’ve created compelling, engaging characters.  I hope so anyway. It will make selling the damn thing easier.  I think I’ve created compelling, engaging characters whose actions and personalities drove the plot.  And if the characters are driving the plot then it’s character driven, right?

But I know the end.  I knew the end.  And while my characters and my outlines and a great deal has changed, overall, the end has not.  So it seems I have created characters, and everything they’ve felt or done, every bit of growth and change, has been in service to and driven by the plot.  There are no surprises now.  Only consequences.

But they don’t feel forced and they never make decisions that are out of character.  And those are the most lamented failings of plot driven stories.

In the end I think all stories are plot driven.  We expect our fiction to have an arc, a mostly logical path.  The characters in our stories have to be more believable than the characters in our lives.  There are outliers at the extreme ends of both types of story, but for the great middle muddle the best stories are a dog’s breakfast of both.

Of course, I could be full of equine created fertilizer and be talking out my own waste port.

That is all.


Posted in: Me, Writing