I remember an editor I was pitching too, back in the day, who asked me...one of his first questions...
"Are your books plot driven or character driven."
Have you tackled that question yet?
For some reason it reminds me of a joke I heard a whole long time ago,
"What's the next Sylvester Stallone movie going to be about?"
"I've heard it's a sweet, sad coming of age story about a shy Amish boy."
It's Sly Stallone.
It's gonna be a Sly Stallone movie.
What he and what many actors do is often character driven to the extent that a lot of actors play the same (or a madly similar) character over and over and over.
So I get character driven movies he makes. Sort of. They still have to have a plot. (occasionally debatable, but let's say they do)
I heard a really interesting podcast about True Grit.
About the book, the first movie and the second movie.
And how the book had to be radically changed because the first movie became a John Wayne movie.
Rooster Cogburn wasn't really the central character in the book. It was Maddie Ross, the young girl.
But you don't cast John Wayne in a movie and not let him be John Wayne, and not let him be the central character.
So the movie had to change. It was fascinating to listen to the talk.
I'll link to it at the end of this blog post if you are interested in some really inside stuff about True Grit.
So now I'll tell you what I told that very scary editor.
I don't know if I'm right or wrong, but I thought I had a lot of nerve to answer this way.
I think "Plot Driven vs Character Driven" is one of those 'writerly' conversations, like plotter or panster that really isn't a legit conversation, because NO BOOK can be written without a plot.
And NO BOOK can be written without developing characters who live out that plot.
The two influence each other to an extent that it's just not possible to have one without the other.
I love creating interesting, different, I hope--believable characters.
For me the story comes first but the characters have to come to life.
So is that plot or character?
The story has to GO SOMEWHERE. But if you do the characters right they are going to push and shove the story around as any living, breathing, reacting, thinking person would.
They are indivisible.
Woman of Sunlight isn't Woman of Sunlight if Ilsa is a savvy, confident citified business woman.
There is no story if she's that. There might be another story, but not this one.
What city woman knows how to climb a tree with a knife clamped in her teeth?
One thing I had Mitch and Ilsa do, very early on in a book between two perfect opposites, is recognize each other's skills and respect them. Often characters at odds like this will fail to recognize and respect each other and that can make a nice muddle. But I went a different way with Mitch and Ilsa. I had Mitch figure out pretty soon that he needed Ilsa's help and, instead of being over-protective, he relied on her to carry her weight.
From Woman of Sunlight
Her knife filled her hand with no conscious decision to draw it.
Mitch’s pistol was out and in action. He fired.
Ilsa was too close to him. She knew from her years of hunting that if two targets were a distance apart, it was harder to hit both. Keeping the tree between her and the peppering gunfire, she reached overhead, snagged a low hanging limb and launched herself upward.
A hard hand grabbed her leg and yanked her to a halt. She looked down.
Mitch’s eyes met hers. He whispered, “Don’t kill him if you can help it.”
She nodded with one jerk of her chin, her heart almost hot with the respect he’d just shown her. Then her bossy husband let her go, turned back to the gunman and fired.
If Cam in The Reluctant Warrior is an easy-going, soft spoken man, then he gets reacquainted with his daughter quickly and easily after war has separated him for her most of her life.
But how can an army officer be soft spoken? This man barks out orders. Only it doesn't work well with a three year old.
That's the heart of the story. Think of the way people sometimes talk in a weird, sing songy voice to a child. That's a version of what Cam just doesn't know what to do.
When he asks for help, Gwen, his heroine, says, "You have to change your whole nature."
Which makes him cranky and he starts barking out orders at her.
From The Reluctant Warrior
Dead silence reigned.
He was absolutely stunned by this useless piece of advice. He felt his temper rising and fought it down.
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“How do—” He paused because his voice sounded more like a wolf growling than a man speaking. Forcing himself to remain calm…somewhat…he began again. “How do I do that? Change my nature. My nature? Isn’t a man’s nature, well isn’t that who I am? You want me to change who I am? Come up with some false way of acting and talking so the children will love that pack of lies?”
She shrugged one shoulder a bit helplessly. “Yes.”
Silence again. She hovered near his feet where she’d spent about ten minutes tucking in a blanket that would come loose again the minute Cam lost his temper and ripped it off and threw it on the floor.
Now she walked toward the head of the bed. It struck him as very brave because he thought his anger had to show. Or maybe she was a halfwit that didn’t know what was best for her. Considering she’d just advised him to be a phony and a liar, he reckoned the second was right.
When she should have run for her life, she sat down on the side of the bed. It was narrow so there really wasn’t room for her. She rested one of her gentle hands on his chest and leaned far too close. He had to admit, reckless though her behavior was, it had driven most of his temper back down.
Didn’t matter, he knew how to find it.
“I’m afraid that’s what I want, Cam, and remember you asked. And I don’t think of what I just told you as advising you to lie.”
Hadn’t she just agreed with him when he’d asked her if he should lie?
“I can see that you love your daughter, Cam. I see the sadness in your eyes when she is afraid of you, or when she is happy with someone else like Trace just now. Love is in you, Cam. But you don’t show it well. To learn to show love, to learn to not snap out orders, to learn that a little girl wants smiles and patience and sweet words, that isn’t lying. And in fact, it doesn’t mean changing everything about yourself.”
Cam was mighty afraid that was just what it meant.
Writerly conversations are fun, so let's have one. Can you think of a truly character driven book?
I'm thinking myself right now. Not coming up with much. Superhero movies? The characters are there but some of them aren't very real. I like some Batman's better than others. Is that the actor or the director or the plot?
Can you think of one with a plot but the characters just inhabit a story without being three dimensional?
Let's talk plot and characters and tell me which YOUR book is.
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