I love helping writers who are serious about their craft. So, let me share with you the following excerpt from my new book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy. As a novelist with over half a million books sold, I hope you’ll find Page-Turner helpful and inspiring.
The Plot/Character Debate
Critics will sometimes categorize a novel as either “plot driven” or “character driven.”
When they call a book “plot driven” it’s their shorthand for saying the story is exciting, but the characters are a little thin. For example, a Tom Clancy techno-thriller might be called “plot-driven.”
When a critic calls a story “character driven” it’s shorthand for saying the characters are complex and fascinating, but the plot is a little thin. Many literary novels, such as Saturday by Ian McEwan or Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, might be called “character driven.”
Shorthand may be necessary for critics, but for writers this binary reduction is a false analysis. It’s meaningless. Because the simple fact is that all stories are character driven.
Plot cannot exist without characters. Characters create plot.
Cause and Effect
What’s at work here is causality. Author E. M. Forster summed it up thus: “The king died and then the queen died,” is just a sequence of events, but “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The queen’s sorrow caused her death. The characters caused the plot.
Two Famous Examples
To illustrate this dynamic further, let’s look at two of Shakespeare’s best known characters: Hamlet and Romeo. What do we know about Hamlet’s character? He is introspective, analytical, cautious. What do we know about Romeo’s character? He’s passionate, intrepid, bold.
In Act 1 of Hamlet, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his dead father who tells him he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius. This stuns Hamlet, because his Uncle Claudius is now married to Hamlet’s mother and is king. The play is about Hamlet longing to take revenge on Claudius but being constantly restrained by his own meditative, analytical character.
Now, what if Romeo found himself in that situation? Desperate to avenge his father’s death, Romeo, being passionate and impetuous, would kill Claudius in Act I and the story would end—there would be no Hamlet plot.
Likewise, by the end of Act I of Romeo and Juliet Romeo is so madly in love with Juliet he’ll risk everything to be with her, even risk being killed by her family. But if Hamlet found himself in Romeo’s Act I situation, he might become so engrossed in pondering the existential nature of love that Juliet, unaware that he adores her, would obediently marry Paris, the man her parents have chosen for her, and the story would end. No Romeo and Juliet plot.
So, never forget this. Character creates plot. Period.
The above is an excerpt from Page-Turner. Want to read the first chapter? Be my guest! Read it here.
And you can buy Page-Turner right now:
Grow as a writer. Dare to succeed.