Wednesday, April 30

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

Characterization Or Plot: Which Is Most Important To Readers?

The other day I watched a video of Lee Child talking about writing. It was a question and answer period and someone asked how he got in touch with his character, Jack Reacher. They asked how he knew Reacher's likes, wants, needs, fears, and so on.

Lee Child said something to the effect that Jack Reacher is a fictional character and, as such, had no likes or dislikes. It was the reader who had likes and dislikes. Child didn't care about what Reacher wanted he cared about what the reader wanted. And, he added, hopefully they'd want to turn the page![1]

This startled me. 

One of the first things I wondered in my budding career as a writer--I think I was about four at the time--was how to make my parents interested in my stories. Really interested, not just "Oh another story, how lovely." It was a challenge since my interests weren't their interests and vice versa.

Since then my audience has changed radically, but the question has remained the same: How can I write stories that make readers want to finish them, stories which drag readers from the first sentence to the last sentence?

From what I can tell, here's the standard answer:

You get a reader to care about the story by creating a round character, a 3D character, one with hopes and wants and needs and fears and then you break their hearts. 

You endanger what they care about most, you strip them of what they need, and then you give them a way to win it back, but the way is narrow and fraught with deadly peril. The environment opposes them, some of their allies oppose them, their all-too-human enemy opposes them. And the obstacles keep getting thornier and higher and eventually seem insurmountable. 

But the hero has heart. He's not giving up. He battles on. And he's clever. He's got skills. We, the readers, can't help but root for him and find it impossible to sleep until we know how it all turned out in the end. Did he achieve his goal or did he lose everything? (Which I think, really, equates to us wondering what kind of a universe it is. Fair or random.)

That was a (very) rough sketch, but you know what I'm talking about. That's the bones of the hero's quest.

But ... is that it? Is that right? Is that (the hero's quest, character identification, creating 3D characters, and so on) how we get people to care about stories?

Let me play devil's advocate:

"Characters don't have hopes or wants or needs or fears because they don't exist! They're fictional. Besides, they don't have any money so they can't invest in one's next book, so what writers should be concerned with are the hopes and wants and needs and fears of flesh and blood readers. And (in general) what matters to humans is mystery and puzzles and action."

Or something.

I think, in practise, readers read on because they care about both the characters and the bells and whistles of the plot; action and mystery and all that kind of thing.

I know I've used it as an example too many times, but it's one of my favorite movies, and it does illustrate my point beautifully. In Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I did care whether Indy found the ark and it didn't have anything to do with me wanting Indy to achieve his goal (or because I cared about the character yada yada), it had to do with the ark itself. I was curious whether this really was the Ark of the Covenant and, if Indy or the Nazi's found it, what it would do. And would whatever it did be cool. (And it was!)

Something similar happened when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones. One of the questions that season was: Are dragons real? Is Daenerys Targaryen part dragon or is she just delusional? The last episode of that season answered the question beautifully. 

I did care about Daenerys and whether she salvaged something from the ashes of her life, but more than anything I wondered: Do dragons exist? Granted, I wouldn't have cared as much about the answer if Daenerys hadn't staked her life on it. And this only mattered because I'd come to care about the character. But still.

I think what I'm talking about, or gesturing toward, is the interaction of character and plot. Readers care about the plot, in part, because of the characters and we get interested in the characters, in part, because the plot spurred them on to do interesting things.

What do you think? Why do you read stories? Is it the plot? The characters? The interaction of the two? 


1. I can't remember exactly where I saw this, I was going through Lee Child's interview page. I think I watched everything from 2012 on.


  1. Great question. Great post. Glad you chose to wrap it up with a question rather than an answer.

    I think there are answers. Note: answers. Plural.

    I try to give the reader a plot and a character to care about. Not all one, not all the other.

    The Incredible Lightness of Being gave me all character. No discernible plot. We walked out 15 minutes before the end. (Same for Wreckers. My wife chose the movie. I fell asleep before the end.)

    There was a movie I saw with Jason Statham in the lead role that was all plot. Tried to develop the character a little but could not because it did not even give the hero a name. I cannot even remember the name of the movie.

    Blackhawk Down worked because even though it was 90% plot, it gave me just enough character at the beginning to make me root for these soldiers.

    Out of Africa worked because even though it was 90% character, it gave me just enough plot to make me curious about what would happen next.

    Me? If I don't care a little about the characters, it does not matter what happens next. Contrariwise, if nothing happens next, it does not matter if I care about the characters.

    Each story has to find its own balance. An unbalanced piece is not a story.

    (Catherine Howard rants about the unbalanced Amber in her latest post: Amber was unbalanced. What do you call someone whose mind is unbalanced?)

    1. "Me? If I don't care a little about the characters, it does not matter what happens next. Contrariwise, if nothing happens next, it does not matter if I care about the characters."

      Well said! I like your ideas about balance, and thanks for the link to Catherine, Caffeinated. I love her writing and she does have an excellent point. I myself experienced the Red Rage over the final episode of How I Met Your Mother, though for slightly different reasons.

    2. What's funny is I picked up a Jack Reacher book the other day and there were a few pages written by Child where he was talking his writing process. He said character was king. He said we remember the character long after the memory of the plot line. We remember the Lone Ranger, Superman, Frodo, Indy, Hannibal, Rick Grimes, etc. Stephen King writes such great characters that we don't mind going to the bathroom with them or through the other mundanes of life because he writes them in such an entertaining fashion. A great character can't do anything else but stir up a great plot.

    3. It's funny, I was just reading Lee Child's thoughts on writing and he said character was king. He said we can remember who the Lone Ranger is long after the plot has disappeared from our mind. We remember Frodo, Superman, Hannibal, Heathcliff Huxtable and Rick Grimes. A great character can't do anything less than stir up a great plot.

    4. Thanks for mentioning that about Lee Child, Charmaine, I'd love to read that!

      It was bothering me, so I hunted up the bit of text that inspired my mention of Lee Child. On March 13, 2012 Child gave a talk about writing, a master class, at The Center For Fiction Writing.

      Here Lee Child is talking about the question: How do you create suspense? What follows is my transcription.


      "You're asking the wrong question, It's not, "How do you bake a cake?" it is "How do you make your family hungry?"

      And the answer to that is you make them wait four hours for their dinner.

      It really is that simple.

      Forget character, forget all that stuff, what you do to create suspense is you ask or you imply a question at the beginning and then you don't answer it until the end.


      So what I said about character leads me on to the type of thing which is something that drives me crazy. I've often heard it said, "On every page one of the characters must want something"

      And to me that shades toward a fundamental misunderstanding of what we're doing because the characters are not real. Okay? They don't exist. They are not capable of wanting anything or needing anything or being interested in anything. They are made up.


      You've got to give the reader something on every page. And you can structure what it is you think they want. They want more information. They want the plot to thicken.


      I know perfectly well that if I'm writing a Reacher book and I put in some line about a childhood experience, something he did when he was a kid, I know readers are loving that because they want that.

      I'm not doing it because Reacher feels the need to reminisce. I'm really not, because it's fixed in my head that reacher does not exist, he's not real.

      I'm a big Lee Child fan and a big Jack Reacher fan. I admire the man, I admire his writing. And I thought he had a good point. Really, literally, the characters we write about, that live with us, that take up our mental space, don't exist. They aren't real. So, given that, the typical answer for how one generates suspense wouldn't seem to apply. And, in this talk, you can hear Lee Child himself say that he doesn't think that putting a character in jeopardy is what generates suspense. No, it's all about asking a question and then not answering it. It's all about delayed gratification.

      If you have the time I'd advice listening to the whole thing. I've given the links below. The first one is to Lee Child's talk, the second is to the 15 min Q&A period afterward.

      Master Class:

      Thanks for reading, Charmaine, and for your comment. Cheers!

    5. "It's funny, I was just reading Lee Child's thoughts on writing and he said character was king. He said we can remember who the Lone Ranger is long after the plot has disappeared from our mind. We remember Frodo, Superman, Hannibal, Heathcliff Huxtable and Rick Grimes. A great character can't do anything less than stir up a great plot."

      Charmaine, I reproduced your comment because it seemed to get lost up there. Yes, you've raised an excellent point. It seems to me that the two views--that, on the one hand, a great plot is character driven and that people are drawn to his Reacher series because of his (awesome, fantastic) character and, on the other, that characters really, ultimately, don't exist, are consistent.

      Two things were running around my brain as I wrote this piece. First, Lee Child's views on the metaphysics of characters--whether, and how, they exist--and, second, his views on how suspense is generated.

      It seems clear that although he does believe his (awesome, wonderful) character (Jack Reacher) is a large part of the reason why readers come back to the series book after book--and I believe he's absolutely right--it seems as though he doesn't believe that suspense is generated by putting that character into jeopardy.

  2. I call myself a bookworm and have read all sorts of stories throughout my life. So, to me it has to do with finding a space away from real life and enjoy the freedom of that existence created inside the pages of a book for as long as it takes to read it. I also write and plot and somewhere along the writing journey, the characters become 'real' to me. There must be a time when I as the writer conclude that I've created a monster or a saint, living inside my head for months or even years - my opinion, which of course might not be what readers will suppose.

  3. Doesn't this depend on what genre it is? The different genres have reader expectations, and one of those is the level of characterization. If I were reading a romance, I'd expect characterization to be at the forefront because that's what romance is about. But if I were reading a fantasy novel, it would be the world -- and I've seen some where the character came second after the world and others where it was the story.


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