There’s an old joke which goes: “There are two kinds of people in the world—those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.”
There’s a similar line of thinking when it comes to novels and novelists—there are those that think the plot should drive the character and those who think the character should drive the plot. Conventional wisdom dictates that character-driven fiction tends to come under the umbrella of “literary” fiction, while plot -driven works tend to be oriented to a specific genre or category.
Regardless of what you’re writing though, all successful fiction depends upon your ability to create memorable characters in memorable situations. In order to become really engaged in your story, the reader needs to care. And because we share a common humanity, it’s a pretty safe bet they will care first about your characters and second, about what happens to them as the plot unfolds.
Very often, writers rely on characterization to create a character, when it’s only half the job. As readers, we can wade through a whole lot of information--where Bob lives, what he had for breakfast, what he wore to work, whether he needs to lose ten pounds or hates his wife’s new perfume and tells bad jokes--and still not know anything about him, much less engage with him on some kind of emotional level. And while characterization is certainly important, you haven’t really built a character until the writer uses each of those outer qualities to somehow illustrate the inner life of the man. That means those cold scrambled eggs, his expanding waistline, underpaid job and the lingering smell of that hateful perfume all need to reveal something about how Bob feels about himself and his world.
Plot driven fiction can also give a character short shrift if it relies on situation alone to determine the outcome of the story. Becky may be a young mother and a promising law student unwittingly caught up in an international conspiracy, but nobody is going to care unless being in that situation somehow changes Becky forever. Placing her “in danger” is simply not enough. It may be that she overcomes incredible obstacles, catches the villains and keeps the world safe for Democracy, but it isn’t going to mean a thing unless she learns something about herself in the process. Maybe the experience changes her priorities, maybe she learns the good guys aren’t always good and that they don’t always win—but whatever her revelation, Becky has to be the one to resolve the plot for the reader in such a way that they are satisfied with the outcome. Otherwise she’s just a person that things happen to—not a person who makes things happen.
To build real, believable and memorable characters, an author has to go the extra mile. It helps to know what makes people tick, but even more important is your willingness to really become those characters, body mind and spirit. It means setting aside your own opinions and judgments and even a really good outline when they depart from the script. It means feeling their pain and sharing their joy, and experiencing their conflicts in sometimes excruciating detail. And for an author that can be both exhausting and incredibly rewarding. As the great actress Meryl Streep has said (and it’s certainly as true for a writer as an actor,) “To take someone in a really precarious position and truly inhabit their mind and soul is a very dangerous thing to do."
But the results can indeed, be memorable.