People vs Plot

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Ah, the age-old battle of many a writer. What matters most to a book or short story: the characters and the world they inhabit, or the story that they happen to find themselves in? I’m actually surprised at how definitive people’s views are on this: even by really well established writers. Will you indulge me for a few hundred words? Let’s dig into it a little.

A common misconception is that all the “best” novels, (however one decides what constitutes best, personally I think the notion to be a bit silly), are canonised because the characters are so brilliantly written. The idea being therefore that good characters trump a good plot.

Now look, that’s true of many a fantastic author. Heck, maybe even most of them. People from Elmore Leonard (who I often consider one of my favourites) to James Ellroy to Stephen King. But I can also think of many, like say the late great Michael Crichton, who are totally the opposite, and are proud to say it.

I’m proud to say it: I’m a concept/story guy. My characters are there to serve that. I like to move at a pace, and a solid concept serves that. My characters are caught up in it. I think they’re rounded and three-dimensional, but for me, the story is the thing. I love stories and authors where the opposite is true, but to place one above another to me is a bit silly.

I mentioned James Ellroy in my list of “people more than plot” writers. James Ellroy’s plot in the superb novel LA Confidential was mostly thrown out by Curtis Hanson (writer/director) and Brian Helgeland but the characters preserved. Not a surprise. The plot is wonderful in the book, but it’s too dense, intertwined and convoluted for a movie. But really, for LA Confidential, it was the characters that made it. A personal favourite from work is the protagonist in Clandestine. Highly recommended.

But don’t forget, excellent films based on books also often change characters around and make them fit the narrative, and the characters are secondary. It works either way.

I guess what I’m trying to say in this poorly-worded drivel is don’t get too held up on what sort of writer you are. You might be character-focused and that’s great. But don’t let anyone tell you that plot-focused writers are any less worthy. Not unless they’ve sold more copies of any one of their books than Dan Brown did when he released The Da Vinci Code.

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