Plot-driven vs. character-driven

Kerry over at spottytypewriter wrote a great post this week about how annoying it can be when someone comes up to you and says, “oh, you’re reading a book!  What is it about?”  That’s easy to answer if you’re reading The Hunger Games (“it’s about a dystopic world where children are forced to compete in death matches”), but harder if you’re reading a character-driven book like The Namesake (“it’s about … a guy? And he sort of hates his name.  And it’s also about his family.  They’re Indian.”).

This led to a discussion about plot-driven novels vs. character-driven novels.  I enjoy twisty, plot-heavy thrillers or mysteries.  But for me to really love a novel, it has to have great characters.  Plot alone won’t get a book onto my “oh my god you have to read this right now!” list.  When a book burns through a lot of plot twists and doesn’t spend much time on character development, I may enjoy it but I generally find it more forgettable than a book that spends a lot of time creating people who interest me.  The books I love best are books in which the characters’ wishes and goals drive the action of the story.  That doesn’t mean the characters necessarily control all of the events in the book, but there are few things I hate more as a reader than a character who makes incomprehensible or inconsistent decisions because that’s what the plot requires.

However, I also find that I am much more prone to giving up on character-driven books than on plot-driven ones.  For example, recently I read Die Trying, the second Jack Reacher novel.  It had some problems.  I thought Child’s decision to abandon Reacher’s first-person narration for multi-POV third-person was a mistake; every time the action moved away from Reacher my eyelids got heavy. But I still finished the book, albeit by skimming the non-Reacher bits.

In contrast, I did not finish Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park.  I think Goodman is a fabulously talented writer and the book was a very deep, detailed portrait of its main character.  The problem was that I absolutely hated that main character.  Sharon was self-absorbed, impatient, entitled, and above all boring.  Her incessant rambling about her “spiritual enlightenment” was probably true to how that type of person would think and how she would approach life, but it was absolutely uninteresting to me as a reader.  I found Sharon so tedious that I didn’t care what happened to her and I returned the book to the library after making it only about a third of the way through.

So what’s more likely to make you love a book — a twisty, fascinating plot or a richly developed character?

Quick PSA: WordPress now requires you to log in if you’re using an e-mail address associated with a Gravatar account — and I’ve heard from a lot of people that the login isn’t working even when they’re positive the password is correct.  For the time being I suggest leaving your e-mail address out or using your Twitter account.

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One comment on “Plot-driven vs. character-driven

  1. schillingklaus says:

    I hate character-driven novels, and I don’t like action-driven stu, either.

    Idea-driven stories are my way to go, regardless of how much they are denigrated or ignored by most people.

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