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Writerly Ramblings on Character & Plot – A Quick Drive

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typing car


MEANWHILE … in classrooms and chatrooms, one of the many debates between literature and genre fiction focuses on character-driven versus plot-driven stories. The conceit being that genre fiction is driven by the action, the mystery, or the maguffin. Literature supposedly focuses on character exploration and growth.

That is simply not true because character and plot are equal parts in all fiction, literature and genre. That is when a story works. It is when character and/or plot is under-developed or non-existent that a story fails to go anywhere.

All stories are character driven. In genre fiction, they actually drive somewhere. In New Pulp, they typically drive very fast and exchange gunfire. In literature, they go for a leisurely drive in the country or get stuck circling the same roundabout repeatedly. But still, they are all driving around.

A plot without characters is like the proverbial tree in the woods. If no one is there to experience it, does it really matter?

Character without plot is like sitting on the couch alone. You may be the most fascinating person in the world, but until you get up and do something, does it really matter?

Plot is what characters drive, not the other way around. Plot never drives character. It is a character conveyance not a character convenience. Now if a character is cardboard, it may bend in the wind and lose control, but still it starts off at the wheel.

To ensure that characters are driving the plot and not being taken for a ride, there is a very simple test. If you replace a character with another does the story change? Faced with the same situation, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Holden Caulfield, and Captain Yossarian are all going to respond quite differently.

Different characters may drive the plot to the same inevitable conclusion, but will do so at different speeds and along different paths, or they may end up at vastly different destinations. Obstacles are to be expected but a well-crafted and maintained plot should not break down on the journey.

Characters are like your children. They are going to bring the car back out of gas and maybe with a few scratches, but never let them leave in the first place unless you know the car is in good working order.

Remember, your mileage may vary.

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