Story, Character, Writing–What Matters Most? (Part 1)

“Just tell me a story,” my husband (who at the time was my boyfriend) would say.

“What does that even mean?” I would beg him to explain. “A story of the characters?”

“Just tell a story,” he would repeat, frustrated, as though it were as simple as that.

 

***

No doubt many of you will have no trouble with his advice. Yeah, you’ll say with a shrug, a story.

It wasn’t so simple to me. At the time, I was in an MFA program, taking classes in “craft” and polishing up a novel that was too commercial for the literary crowd and too literary for most general (?) readers. I loved fantasy but found precious little tolerance for it in academia. More to the point, I was surrounded by writers (my professors and fellow students) who did not value plot. Not only did I never (in NINE years of creative writing classes!) take a course in plot construction, I heard again, and again, and AGAIN that I should not even THINK about plot. I should care only about characters and sentences. (I have so, so, so much more to say on this subject of MFA programs, but I won’t here.)

Anyway, in the years since then, I’ve come to understand story (or plot) much better. Perhaps I should say that I relearned what most readers know by instinct. Yes, it’s the events, but it’s more. It’s the way you (the reader) experience the events. It’s how immersed you are in them, how much you care about what is happening, both within the world of the book and, of course, to the characters. Tell me a story, my husband would say. And now I know what he meant. Make me experience it. Make me care.

As I’ve written The Griever’s Mark series, I’ve thought much about what matters most. Plot? Characters? Writing quality? My husband would say plot. The answer isn’t as simple for me. I want to say characters are most important, but I have to admit that when I read more literary work with too much emphasis on the complexities of the characters and too little emphasis on what’s happening, I get bored. But I also get bored with books in which I’m not invested in the characters. However, if I were to be stuck in, say, a prison cell and had a choice between two books, one with a good plot but flat characters and the other with good characters but a flat plot? I would grudgingly snatch the book with the good plot from your hands and disappear into my grubby little corner. So, as usual, my husband is right. ~grumbles, sniffs sharply~

But.

BUT. ~raises finger~

A plot with really good characters is definitely best of all. I will care more about the events if I care about the characters. What I’m really, really reading for is how the characters handle the events and what the events show me about them. (So I’m still right a little, aren’t I? Yes?)

And that brings me to the last element: the writing.

Some very successful writers will tell you that the writing doesn’t matter at all. “Just tell me a story!” they’ll shout.

Maybe it’s my academic background still clinging to me. Maybe it’s my mother’s influence. Maybe it’s just me. But I can’t quite agree with that. After all, doesn’t the writing tell the story?

I want to say more on this, but you are probably weary of my rambling. I’ll leave this as a cliffhanger, to be continued. (Yes, I know, worst cliffhanger EVER.)

By the way, for anyone who remembers my last post (about moving and getting my horse in the trailer), I’ll say that I did get her in the trailer and she’s all settled in at our new location. I’m loving our new place. Here’s my office. My last one was very dim, so I really appreciate the morning light in this one. This is the view from my armchair. Yep, I have the best job in the world. (To answer you freakishly sharp-eyed folks, yes, I’m rereading Chains of Water and Stone. When I’ve had a break from writing–because of the move–I have to re-immerse myself. Is it weird that I’m enjoying my own book? But, gah, I have found a few typos. Un.be.liev.able.)

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Comments

  1. I’d say it’s a good thing you’re enjoying your own book, and yes typos have a way of hiding. Congrats on the move! Odd how pets always get in photos.

    When I read I gravitate to plot driven books, but when I write my stories are very character driven. Strange but true. I’d say you’re both right. Strong characters can make up for a weak plot and a strong plot can make up for weak characters. (Weak but not unlikable) But to be excellent both need to be strong. (Which I’d say you’ve figured out.)

    • Katherine :

      I think that’s a good way to think of it: one can *make up for* the other, but, ideally, both should be strong in their own right so that that is not necessary. I’m so glad you regard The Griever’s Mark as strong on both counts. I really want that, but sometimes I get so caught up in character I’m afraid I’ve overlooked plot. (Right now, I’m rewriting some of Book 3 because I was doing character stuff and realized that the plot, while it was moving forward, was not doing anything thrilling. It was *fine*, but fine isn’t nearly good enough. NOW things are happening!)

      And, yes, pets do sneak their way into photos, don’t they? I don’t think I could take a photo in my house without the cat–she is my shadow! Thank goodness the Inquisition is well in the past. No doubt I would be taken for a witch with her familiar.

      Thanks for staying in touch!

  2. Hi Katherine!
    I loved this post–for one thing, I’m ready for the third book! Therefore, it’s great to know you’re working on it. Next, I loved your musings on plot vs. characters–I think you’re right that BOTH are important for the best of stories. AND, I agree, with a choice between super complex (hence, most likely, boring) characters and an exciting, fast-moving plot, I would choose the latter.

    Good luck with your writing!

    Nice office.

    • It’s a shame, isn’t it, that we so often have to choose between engaging characters and an engaging plot? It IS difficult to create both at once, but it makes for such a much better reading experience. This is one reason I’ve always loved Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Dancer series. Her characters are so real, so complex and fascinating. At the same time, hold on for the adventure!

      Thanks for your thoughts!

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