Sunday, December 9, 2012

Character versus Story

All books have to have characters.  All books have to have stories.  Which of them is most important?

There are lots of character driven stories.  Many of the classics, like The Old Man and the Sea or The Scarlett Letter, are character driven tales.  Even the Harry Potter series is essentially about one person, following the story of a boy marked from the age of one by an evil wizard.  In each of these stories, the overall adventure is important, but it's secondary to the characters.  Yes, I'm sure that Rom Weasley's life is fascinating as well, but it was Harry we were invested in.

On the flip side, a great deal of novels are story driven.  Harry Turtledove uses dozens of different characters to drive his story about an America in the century following a Confederate victory in the Civil War, but those characters are just the vehicle to move us from battle to battle and war to war.  Whether the section read from Jake Featherston's point of view or Irving Morrell's, they were incidental to telling us what happened in the Battle of Pittsburgh of the naval fight by the Sandwich islands.

So which one should you, as a writer, follow?  That really depends on what you want to accomplish.

I discovered early on that I'm much more of a story focused kind of guy.  I have a fantastical tale to impart, and the characters just get us from A to B.  It's so much my tendency, in fact, that I have to be careful not to do so at the expense of the characters.  My first novel, an appallingly bad tale that I'm now embarrassed to have written, was about how humanity crawled out from under the ashes of a galactic war and how it reclaimed its place on top.  The main character provided an interesting viewpoint, but I jumped around to various viewpoints, many of which were only seen once.

By concentrating on this in future works, I've done a much better job in molding the story around the character as a result.  Salvation Day is seen exclusively from the point of view of the protagonist, and understanding his motivations is key to understanding the plot as a whole.  Even though the second book I wrote, Akeldama, is much more a story oriented novel, I concentrated a great deal on bringing the main two characters to life.  In doing so, I discovered that one took more prominence than the other, and it helped advance the book.  Still, the story was what I wanted to convey.

I wish I had the chops to pull off an exclusively character driven book or series, but that's just not my style.  I mentioned The Old Man and the Sea earlier, but truth be told, I found that to be pretty boring.  I think readers want their imaginations to be set on fire, and I can't do that through too much emphasis on characters.  That's probably because it takes me a lot of effort to make my characters not all turn into carbon copies of me.  However, my stories flow pretty easily, so I'd rather focus on that.

What are your preferences?  Are you an Heir to the Empire fan, where the characters are little more than ways to show the continuing conflict between the Empire and the New Republic?  Or are you more drawn in by The Shining, where you have to get the psyche of Jack and Danny Torrence in order to understand why they are drawn in by The Overlook?  More importantly, what do you do to help offset your natural tendencies in one direction or the other?


  1. I'm also more of a plot/story focused writer (and reader) so you'll get no debate from me. But of course, the characters must always been engaging and interesting. A good plot can carry mediocre characters. I find that the opposite is tougher to pull off well--at least for me.

    1. Absolutely. I think the story is far more important. Characters are important, but they alone can't make a boring book engaging.