Writer’s Licence

Writers and readers (and filmmakers and viewers, for that matter) like to divide stories into two categories: those that are character driven and those that are plot driven. Usually there’s an air of snobbery in this, where the stories that are plot driven are made to seem somehow lacking in the ineffable qualities that make a story great. Character vs. Plot is a common heading to be found in how-to-write books.

My friends, I have had an epiphany. Instead of Character vs. Plot we should be thinking of Character and Plot. A joining conjunction rather than a dividing one. These two story elements are both absolutely essential to any story. All stories are by definition narratives, so stuff has to happen, and it usually has to be interesting or made to seem so. And an audience is really only able to connect with a story if the people in it are interesting or made to seem so. Character and Plot go hand in hand to tell a good story.

Think of a car. (And I don’t know much about cars so this metaphor may fall flat on its face.) In a standard configuration, the rear wheels are the ones that have the actual torque to push the car forward. The front wheels are used for steering. In this metaphor, the rear wheels are Character; things move forward through their actions. The front wheels are Plot; it twists and turns as it takes you places.

And more and more I’m finding that the truly great stories, the ones that last and that I enjoy the most, are running on four-wheel drive.

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One thought on “Writer’s Licence

  1. I agree, Steven, a good book has to have both. Think of some of the classics, for instance….like the Winnie the Pooh stories. I love those stories, and enjoy the simple plots over and over again….but it is the characters that stay with me, even if it is in the charm of the simple story lines that reveal the characters.

    Other books that have become favourites with me are Wendell Berry’s novels of the community of Port William. The story draws me in, but it is the characters that grow on me as I read the “saga’ that unfolds through the various books. As I enjoy the remembrance of these stories I feel as though the characters have become friends…and I can’t always recall the details of the plots. (It helps as I read them the second time.)

    Marilynn Robinson’s books are something the same for me. Gilead, and Home are slow moving but the pace of the plot seems to fit the characters and the places she is writing about. Her writing might be described as contemplative. The weaving of the story of the characters is definitely powerful…but again, it is the characters that I remember as think back to my pleasure in her books. And perhaps that is the author’s intent.

    Then when we get into the detective stories, the series type like Sherlock Holmes… and so many of the good detective writers do several books with their hero… the plot creates the growing suspense but is definitely connected to the particular character of the detective and his approach to solving the mysteries presented.

    I wonder if how we judge a book as being “plot” or “character” has as much to do with us as a reader as with how the author approached telling the story. Anyway, you have given me something to think about.

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