Last week, I went to a Read Regional event featuring Stephanie Butland and Debbie Taylor; it was brilliant to hear these lovely ladies talk about their writing processes.
Today, the lovely Stephanie answers a question she is asked regularly – ‘Which is more important: character or plot?’ Stephanie’s novel, ‘Letters to My Husband‘, is available now. You can read my review of ‘Letters to My Husband’ here. ‘Letters to my Husband’ was originally published as ‘Surrounded by Water’.
Many thanks to Stephanie for being involved in the blog. Please feel free to leave a comment.
Which is most important: character or plot?
This question comes up a lot when I do author events. Here’s the short answer:
As with most short answers, though, it’s not quite that simple.
For me, any book where a character doesn’t behave consistently goes straight on the ‘charity shop’ pile, whether I’m thirty pages in or fifteen pages from the end. I don’t care whether it’s literary, thriller or YA – if the author wants me to believe that a heroine who has never shown any interest in languages suddenly applies for, and gets, a job as a translator (‘Ginny dug her Chinese language books out of the loft, and it all came flooding back’) in order to move her to the other side of the world, I’m done with that book, and very probably, that author too. That kind of writing is just plain lazy.
But – a beautifully drawn, authentic character who does nothing isn’t going to keep me reading either. Put bluntly: stuff has to happen. Something must go wrong. And that needs to help the character to change. (No, I am not going to use the word ‘journey’. This is not ‘Strictly’…)
For me, the most compelling writing – the sort that leads to the most obsessive, no-I-don’t-have-time-to-get-dressed-today reading – is writing where character and plot form a spiral, one feeding into another. Witness George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in ‘Middlemarch‘. She is smart and philanthropic and stubborn (character). Therefore Casaubon’s proposal is attractive to her (plot). When she discovers the futility of his project and he refuses to let her help the way she thought she would, she becomes dissatisfied (character-driven) which leads to her becoming attracted to Will Ladislaw (plot). And so on. Eliot and Austen did this brilliantly; one of my favourite authors, John Updike, was a master. But witness, also, Sarah Waters’ Sue in ‘Fingersmith‘; Katniss Everdene whose every effort in ‘The Hunger Games‘ is motivated by loyalty and fury at the world; Harold Fry’s Pilgrimage is not at all unlikely, really, because we understand precisely what in his character drives him to do what he does.
So, the short answer to the character/plot question is ‘character’. The longer, less snappy answer is ‘character, driven by plot, which will drive the character to take in-character responses, which will ramp up the plot a bit more’. And when you’ve got more than one character following those patterns… that’s when you’ve got magic.