Today, we’re discussing a question posed by one of our readers. She asked which did we think drew readers into a book–the plot, or the characters. Here are some of our thoughts on the subject.
Bruce Robert Coffin: Great question! I have always felt the need for a one to one mix of those two ingredients. A great plot will always intrigue me, but characters I care about tend to keep me coming back for more, muy importante if one is seeking a sustainable series.
Lea Wait: I agree with Bruce: both are important. (Setting, and it’s influence on both plot and character, is also very important.) But I also believe the degree of importance of each element depends on the book itself. For a stand-alone, plot is essential. Suspense? Absolutely. Readers need to anticipate — or at minimum be curious about — what will come next. Characters? Victims and sleuths might even be interchangeable. That enhances the suspense. But in a series … characters are critical (and note the plural of character.) Readers want to like the major character enough to return to his or her world again. And again. Plots can vary widely … but characters are critical to a series.
Susan Vaughan: Bruce and Lea have made great points. I agree that characters and characterization are key. I’ll approach this from a different angle, from the reader’s perspective. When I was a new writer, I was caught up in my plots as much as my characters. So when a potential reader asked me what my book was about, I launched into an “elevator pitch,” that is, a brief summary of the plot premise. Quickly eyes glazed over and I could tell I wasn’t luring in that reader. So I’ve learned that when that question is asked, my “elevator pitch” covers the characters, only touching on the danger they’re thrown into. I also want to add that when I told my newsletter subscribers about the new book, Hidden Obsession, coming out later this summer, the sequel to Primal Obsession, a few of them contacted me to ask if Sam and Annie from that book would also appear. So readers remember characters, even from a standalone, and want to see them again.
Kate Flora: I think this is answered, in part, by Susan’s comment, above–readers want to know if our characters will reappear. Another way to test the importance of character since I am a character-drive author, is to ask the question: how would the plot, or the way the story evolves, be different if the protagonist weren’t Joe Burgess or Thea Kozak. For such much of the books, the road to solving the mystery derives from our central character’s questions, and often the roadblocks arise from our character’s flaws, dark places, or fears, which create obstacles to solving the mystery. I know that my readers have developed a deep affection for Thea and Andre, and for Joe and the challenges he faces in his personal life as he moves from his monkish existence to a man with a family. All that being said, obviously a book without a complex plot to drive the story wouldn’t be a mystery that compels readers to keep turning the pages.
Obviously, as Lea notes, setting is also important. We all know that readers love books set in Maine because Maine has a particular mystique in our reader’s imaginations.
Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: What’s already been said pretty much covers the question. Plot, characters, and setting, too, are all pretty darned crucial to a successful novel, regardless of genre or sub-genre. So, I’ll add a twist. When I’m starting a new series (or writing a stand-alone novel), it’s definitely the characters that I think about first. Plot comes much later. In fact, it usually runs a poor third behind planning the setting. In planning a new mystery novel and contemplating the crime, usually a murder, I’m thinking in terms of who gets killed, who will solve the crime, who will help in that endeavor, who will be suspected, and who dunnit. The details of the plot flow from those decisions. Sometimes they’re even subject to change as the individual characters develop during the writing process. I suspect readers are drawn into the “story” in the same way. If the characters are interesting enough, they’ll commit to following the twist and turns of the plot. If the characters are bland and uninteresting, no one’s going to care what happens to them.
Maureen Milliken: Character, every time. I don’t want to read a book if I don’t care about, or am interested in, the characters. Plot is necessary, yes, but it’s characters that make a book. When readers tell me what they like about my books, a lot of it has to do with character. When I was 14, I read my first Dorothy Sayers book, and was blown away — it was the first time I realized a mystery novel could be as much about how people felt, what they were doing and how they interacted with each other as about plot. I love Stephen King because he captures the marginalized and misfit so well. His stories wouldn’t be nearly as good if he didn’t have such a firm grasp on character.
Still not convinced? As I’m sure some of my colleagues have already pointed out, it’s character that drives plot. How people behave and react, what they do and why. Can’t have a good book without good characters.
Barb: Both are necessary. Readers need to care enough about the characters to care what happens to them–and something has to happen to them. Otherwise, why are you telling this particular story?
Sandy Neily: I thought I’d share some of the reminders I have up on my wall (to look at when I write).
Bring the PAIN Early. (I think that means bring it to characters through the plot. Then both the protagonist and the antagonist (or villain) have motives to do what they do. They have motives to change behaviors and often the pain drives these plot changes.
All Plot Comes From Desire and Want (Each page should have something someone wants. That want, even a glass of water, sets off a chain of events.)
“Character, Character, Character” (What matters most to readers said Lily King in her workshop that I attended. This from an author who opens her amazing novel Euphoria with a primitive tribe throwing a dead baby into the waters as white folks approach, so she’s no slouch on plot either. What each person brings with her/him as tools to deal with or not deal with this world … is the meat of the book.)
And from Helen Keller, who of course should really know: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”