I know that there are a lot of people who are going to disagree with me, but I don’t believe there is such a thing as a ‘true plot-driven’ story, at least not one that works. Sure, there are some stories where the plot is much more significant than it is in other stories and even stories where the plot matters just as much as the characters do, but I am stating that the plot will never be more significant than the characters in any story. Characters are the connection, for both readers and writers alike, when it comes to any kind of storytelling.
This is not what I have been taught in college or in graduate school and I think a lot of my peers will think something along the lines of ‘what the hell is Michael talking about?’ but I have spent a great deal of time searching for a true, plot-driven story and anything I come up with, I connect back to its characters (if it worked in the first place). For example, the ‘alien invasion’ is a common story that is considered to be plot-driven. I agree that the plot in these kinds of books is much more significant than a coming-of-age novel. That being said, if I don’t have a character to love, hate or otherwise connect to, I lose interest.
People are what I am rooted to; I need to root for someone or against someone and I need to feel the story. I love thrillers, and they will probably always be my favorite kind of book (if my book lists were not already an indication, they will be). Thrillers are one of the genres that many consider to be inherently plot-driven. At the same time, however, a thriller usually doesn’t work unless it has incredibly complex characters. They are the key to the thriller’s suspense more than the actual murders and mayhem are. When I read a thriller I worry about the primary character rather than imagine a killer magically jumping out of a book and chasing me around. (I’m funny like that.) But if I don’t care about the characters, why should I care if they turn out to be the next victim or not? And I have found the thrillers that truly have a resonating chill factor are the ones that give me a decent glimpse of the villain. When that kind of evil is palpable on the page it stays with you and enhances the entire experience. Again, a characterization thing.
Looking back at some of my previous ‘Noteworthy Fiction’ lists, two novels come to mind that should be (and technically may be considered to be) plot-driven, but it was not the plot that made either book, it was the characters in those books. The first is “The 5th Wave” by Rick Yancey, which made my first fiction list Confessions Of A Bookaholic: Noteworthy Fiction For March 2014. This is a novel about alien invasion. It is all about beating back the invaders, guns, explosives, secret military bases, etc. Surely, if a story was going to be plot-driven this would be it. This book employs a group of narrators, but the character Cassis, who is used the most often, is the reason this book works. In fact the book was denied a perfect rating because Yancey had to employ the other narrators for plot purposes, but none of them could measure up to Cassie’s voice. Cassie made what was happening relevant. Cassie made the reader care. The bombs going off in the background, guns, fighting alien forces is just what is happening to and around Cassie, but if you took her out of the equation, no one would ever finish the book, which boasts an awesomely complex and thrilling plot.
In this month’s fiction list Confessions Of A Bookaholic: Noteworthy Fiction For April 2014 my top pick was “Ashes to Ashes” by Tami Hoag. Hoag also employs many narrators, much more than Yancey used, but all of them work. The thing that makes this story brilliant is the serial killer that hunts many of the minor and major players of this book. Hoag even uses the killer as her narrator at times and it was these sadistic reflections that made me unable to read this book at night. Each character that I experienced in the story I cared about. Whether I wanted to see them fall flat on their faces or wanted them to kick a little butt themselves, I was invested. If this was just about acts of violence themselves or the acts of a serial killer, without characters I care about, then I feel like I am better off watching the news or some ID discovery show.
I am not sure why I felt the need to write about this, but it has been one of the writing topics on my mind lately. I think it is because many new or struggling writers that I work with downplay characters opting to believe that their book is plot-driven and while characters matter, so long as they have an interesting plot they have nothing to worry about. I might be inclined to agree (doubtful, but for the sake or argument) if the bare bones of their plot was original, but there is no such thing as a completely original plot anymore, just fresh takes on plots that have already been done. An amazing character in a book is always remembered and something the reader wants to experience again (either by rereading a book or experiencing a new adventure with that character). A plot is not remembered entirely. Every single nuance and event is not remembered so much as the skeleton of that plot and the effect it had (cool, creepy, exciting etc.) on the reader.
This doesn’t mean that plot is not important. On the contrary, I feel that in the two examples I have given that they matter just as much as the characters do; they just don’t matter more than the characters do. Even if a writer has the most interesting characters, if there isn’t a story to tell, then that book wouldn’t work either. Almost every writer I know utilizes both character and plot since both are necessary for a story to be successful. This is how it should be. An amazing plot with well-rounded and multi-layered characters works just as well as amazing characters with a simple but effective plot. You can’t completely lack one of the elements and still have something people are going to want to read. Because in modern times, it is not about twenty dollars for a hardback or eight dollars for the digital version – it is about time. Something that if wasted, can never be paid back.