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03/22/2010

Plot Driven or Character Driven?

I'm not a writing instructor, nor have I taken many serious writing classes. My grammar is shaky, and if you don't believe me, you can ask my critique partners or my editor. I've never delved into what makes a book work, or how symbolism is used in literature. My love of words is completely untainted by education. That's not necessarily a good thing, just a fact. The first time someone asked me what the theme of my story was, I was taken aback. What is this theme of which you speak? Hmmm? After a little thought and a quick perusal of my manuscript, I found that there was one, but it wasn't intentional, I promise. 

But the title of this post is, Plot Driven or Character Driven, so whats all this drivel about theme and symbolism and your total lack of education, you ask? Well, after a lifetime of writing and the better part of a decade pursuing publication, I've learned stuff, whether I wanted to or not. 

What I've come up with is this, Thrillers, are Plot Driven. Robert Ludlum, Lee Child, Clive Cussler and James Rollins write thrillers. I love thrillers. The protagonist gets dropped into the soup at the beginning and every time it looks like they're about to get out of it, something happens to make everything worse. Robert Ludlum is fantastic at keeping his poor hero and the reader breathless until the last second. You don't have time to wonder if what's happening makes sense because you're too caught up trying to help the hero out of his jam and waiting to see if he's going to survive, save the world and get the girl. It's fun reading, but I can't imagine writing that kind of story. For me that would require tons of research and hours of outlining. For me, once the outline's done, the story is over and I'm ready to move on to something else. I just can't wrap my head around that kind of chaos. Maybe it's because I'm a Virgo.

Mysteries, not all, but a significant number of them, are character driven. The reader doesn't have to worry about whether or not the world is going to be saved, they're more interested in whether the heroine is going to get away from the kidnapper in time to get the kids to their dentist appointment. Or, if dinner's going to burn when the knife wielding idiot storms into her house thirty minutes before her guests arrive. We want to know if Granny is going to marry her sweetheart, if Mama is ever going to give up playing matchmaker and if Junior will make the high school baseball team. Okay, we want to catch the murderer and see him punished as well, but the crime is interwoven into the lives of the characters and we care as much about the characters as we do about solving he mystery.

I love action movies and shows like 24. I enjoy a good thriller. But when I turn on my television for some pure entertainment, or pick up a book for mindless enjoyment, I lean toward more character driven plots. My favorite television shows, NCIS, JAG, Highlander, Psych to name just a few, are all character driven. The interaction of the characters brings me back episode after episode. Oh, there's nothing wrong with a good sword fight, but is he going to get the girl? 

So, what do you like? What do you write? Are you plot driven, or character driven and why?

Tell me what you think, or what your favorite television show, movie or book is and how it relates to the plot/character discussion. I'll draw a name from all the commenters. The lucky reader gets a copy of Nine Kinds of Trouble.  

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