Would you rather explore the most exotic destination with a bunch of bores, or go nowhere with the most endearing characters ever?
This quandary is at the heart of the debate as to whether a story’s plot or characters provide the core ingredient for what constitutes a ‘great’ book. When it comes to crafting a novel, is it the destination or the journey that counts?
Readers are most likely aware of when they’re reading a character driven, or plot driven story (and there are millions of great examples of both) by how a story starts.
Fans of fast, plot driven genres can’t stand deviations from the main narrative distracting them – the idea to pause from the main conflict to lament about the characters internal ponderings is quite preposterous. For them, the hooks are enough to drive commitment to the very last page.
Readers of more high-brow literature aren’t about the destination – they could pirouette in circles as long as they connect with the characters, are inspired by their internal development even if they may seem (to genre-fiction-lovers) to be aimlessly wandering about.
Often there’s evidence on the first page whether a writer has prioritised fleshing out the people in the stories, or the premise itself. It’s a rare book that gets the balance between characters and plot perfect, but shouldn’t we, as writers, offer it all?
Great books should provide a perfect blend of all cornerstone ingredients – visceral descriptions that provide such a rich sense of place you feel transported there, distinct characters you want to bring home or admire and fear all at once, all weaved together by a satisfying conflict your soul aches to see resolved (before you carry on with that overrated thing called living in the real world).
Not unlike genre classification, the need for writers to categorise their story as one or the other is, in my view, a false distinction.
It is the perfect blend of plot and character that has seen to the success of many Australian authors – Jane Harper, Christian White, Liane Moriarty to name a few. Characters and plot go together like a writer and coffee, a library and a reader – surely, they aren’t at odds with each other? If the book is the best version of itself, it should offer both in equal measures.
I’ve never quite worked out which camp my novels best fit (in fact, I’m a little cloudy about their genre too, but I’m content to leave all diagnosis to the reviewers).
Masters of their craft cram in as much characterisation and plot per inch as humanly possible through simple efficiency; using skillful literary devices, verbs that have a dual purpose (that describe actions in a way that also reveals character), and still employ genius plots that dovetail perfectly with action points custom made for well-drawn characters. They champion character through genius sidesteps threaded closely with the plot, inserting almost invisible shards of backstory to flesh out the protagonist’s past. They craft dialogue so distinct you don’t need speech-tags to know who said it, yet, at all times, keep a steady hand on the leash of the main narrative.
I understand how genre helps readers know what to expect, and marketers to know what they’re selling, but is it really necessary to split each title into mutually exclusive circles when they are all so, charmingly, individual? I find often the best books are akin to some of the best people – quirky, original and hard to pigeonhole.
What is clear, is that every tale requires personalities we want to watch develop and events we want to watch unfold. And above all, a story that makes us believe. It has to feel real.
For those that like to label, whichever element becomes the hero of the dish, it has to make the reader feel. Feel the pull of the story drawing you in, feel the pain/desperation/drive/fear of the character.
To return to my introductory dilemma – would you prefer the promise of an action-packed adventure, scaling the summit at Mt Everest, alone and disconnected from anyone, or to be stuck in a muddy roadside puddle leaning on a broken-down bus with the funniest bunch of travelers you’d hope to meet?
My answer would be – why chose? Can’t we have a great bunch of people, and a fabulously exotic destination?
That’s the trip I want to be part of.