Character-Driven or Plot-Driven?

Right now, from what I can tell, there seems to be a bit of an emphasis by some who think themselves experts on F&SF on the need for more “character-driven” fiction. Then, perhaps this has always been true. Whether or not it’s a resurgent emphasis or a long-standing one is irrelevant. It’s wrong. Dead wrong.

Now, before you scream for my head, I’d also like to say that dominance or emphasis on plot-driven or device-driven or any other form of “driven” is also wrong. The best fiction should always be an intertwined blend of character, plot, setting, and style.

If all a serious/experienced reader notices is one of those elements, whether it’s the characters, the plot, the setting, or the style, the work is not all it could or should be. I use the term “serious/experienced reader,” however, most advisedly, because we all have preferences, and we praise those books most highly that reflect our likes. Some readers want most of all to know the characters better and see what they will do when faced with both adversity and success. Others are most intrigued with the plot and how matters will work out. Others concentrate on the world-building or the setting, and for others the way in which the words are used is of paramount importance.

I’ve seen this one-aspect-focus with respect to my own work, where one reader will praise a book for its style, while another will denigrate the style, where another will praise the characterization, and another will declare the characters cardboard cutouts. Part of this results, of course, from each individual’s background, because words and phrases which are evocative and filled with both connotations and implications for one reader may convey nothing to a reader with a dissimilar background or tastes. Generally speaking, but not always, or exclusively, readers with wide-ranging tastes and experience pick up a wider range of what an author may convey… or they may understand all too well that the author’s presentation is merely slick superficiality.

“Character” doesn’t exist in a void, independent of the setting or the action, and both impact how character is revealed. In one novel I wrote years ago, there is a scene where a character has learned that a woman he loved has died in combat. He does not moan or say a word to anyone. He takes a throwing knife and keeps flinging it at a target until the target is mostly splintered wood and his hands are bloody. Yet some felt that this character was cardboard because he said nothing. Characters reveal who they are in various ways, but always more by their actions than their words. In another book of mine, the main character lies early in the book. He does not reveal that he lies, even to himself at the time. The words he utters are far less important than the fact that he has spoken them. He says nothing about it, nor does he reflect on those words. Other than that, he is most honorable in his actions, yet that lie reveals more about what he feels than any other single act in the book… and almost no readers have caught it, even though the lie is totally in character and vital to the conclusion.

And, just for the record, in my view, the only way in which the choice of words in a novel truly reflects the various characters is by the dialogue, those words spoken by each person. All the rest of those beautiful — or not so beautiful — words reflect on the setting.

Does this mean I’m against beautiful words — or lovely flowing sentences? No. It means I’m against sentences that are “beautiful” for the sake of being beautiful, just as I’m against flamboyant characters for the sake of having flamboyant characters or against miraculously crafted settings for the sake of the settings. In short, I’m in favor of what works best for the story at hand, not for what might be termed literary special effects.