This article is my response to Virgil’s The Plots and then a tangent into characters and premises and Stephen King, so I’ve split it up into two parts.
Part One: Definitions
After much discussion with myself, I have come to a conclusion. I like most of what Virgil said in “The Plots”, I just don’t like how he said it. My nitpicky side has a couple of definition issues.
(By the way, CD is short for ‘character-driven’ and SD is short for ‘story-driven’ or ‘plot-driven’. Virgil’s)
CD plots are where characters are well built, functioning people with motives and personalities. They react realistically to situations and feel like real people. SD plots are where characters become slaves to a plot, doing and feeling whatever the author thinks is appropriate. These characters are one dimensional exposition-spouting robots, who can only display emotion or reason at the author’s command.
I have a couple of issues with definition here. Let’s go over this. Character-driven is when the characters, their feelings, and actions, drive the story. Story-driven is when the plot drives the story. Well-written is when the characters, plot, and world make sense. Badly-written is when it just does NOT come together. ‘Story-driven’ and ‘badly-written’ often go hand in hand, but they are not synonymous.
…most story elements are ultimately results of the characters actions, which I reduce to CD actions.
My problem with this is that this is only ‘most’ story elements and that the story-driven elements have been completely neglected. Gigantic meteors falling to earth and crushing people, man-eating butterflies escaping their cages, or deadly computer virii are not covered here. And all three are potential story elements.
Plots become SD when characters make decisions that don’t fit with what seems normal (for them), because the writer has a specific plot point to happen later.
No. Plots become badly-written when characters make decisions to fit with the plot. Plots become SD when the story drives it rather than the characters. For example, David Baldacci (who has some very interesting characters, by the way).
Like I said, just some definition issues.
Part Two: An Elaboration on Virgil’s Idea
This is the part where I stop being all smart-alecky and start bowing my head in shame so that you cannot see the egg on my face. After much discussion with myself about playing devil’s advocate for story-driven plot and complaining self-righteously about the fact that you can reduce everything to a character-driven plot via Virgil’s method, I just can’t do it because it doesn’t make sense. Let’s move on before my blush fills the computer screen to such an extent that you can’t see the words for the read. (Geddit?)
But bad, awful, terrible jokes aside, as I was pondering this I realised that there was a little bit more I wanted to add to this discussion, which isn’t particularly on any side of it.
What really triggered me to write this part was finding a quote from Stephen King. Yeah, I don’t even read Stephen King, but I think he’s pretty much on the mark here.1
I’m going to paraphrase him (because I’m just too lazy to go and Google it):
“Every story should start off plot-driven and end up character-driven.”
In other words, if you want to have a dynamic, rip-roaring story, your focus should be on how your different, individual characters react to a certain event and bring it to life, rather than have characters who are just there so that you have an excuse to write about a premise or an adventure.
Sure, drop some external events on them through the course of the story, and have a gigantic smackdown at the end of it if you like, but make sure your characters react believably, and make sure your characters’ decisions contribute fairly to the plot of the story.
This is kind of similar but kind of different to what Virgil was saying in that it allows for some plot-driven elements rather than a purely character-based story. Not that there is anything wrong with a purely character-driven story. After all, Melina Marchetta made it big with Looking For Alibrandi. I’m just exploring some options.
1 And now that I have given my blessing, he has become completely legit.
Part Three: An Afterthought
(You’re not alone: this part snuck up on me, too.)
Ultimately, I really hate the boxing-in of the ideas of character-driven and story-driven. The danger being that people twist them to mean something they’re not, and use them in elaborate theories. Hey, I’ve probably just done that by writing this article.
But seriously, folks, we shouldn’t get too caught up in what to call things. We should be more focused on how to use them. After all, what really matters is the writing.
This inspirational message brought to you courtesy of Steph (what is left).