Spend any time around writers’ groups and there are certain conversations you can’t avoid having. Topping the list are debates over genre definitions, discussion of the comparative merits of traditional and self-publishing, and mystification about how certain authors have become wildly successful in spite of their poor writing. Up there with them is whether characters or plot are more important. In writing, as in life, it’s always worth being a little sceptical when something is presented as a dichotomy. It begs the question of whether it’s really a choice between one or the other. I’ve previously described characters and plot as two of the three legs of the tripod a story stands on, and I’m going to argue that the tripod needs both unless it wants to fall on its face.
Characters must shine
I’ll start by quoting Lee Child’s foreword to his debut novel, Killing Floor:
First: Character is king. There are probably fewer than six books every century remembered specifically for their plots. People remember characters. Same with television. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger storylines? Nobody.
As far as it goes, I couldn’t agree more. When I think of a story or novel that has stuck in my mind, the I remember the characters. When I think of Raymond Chandler’s novels, I remember Philip Marlowe scowling his way around Los Angeles with his bourbon and his solitary games of chess. I remember the narrative given in his voice: ‘He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck’ is one of the most memorable descriptions I’ve ever read. The description is purely physical, but evoke so much about both the man being described and the man doing the describing. Could I summarise the plot of any of the novels? No I couldn’t, even though I’ve read some of them more than once.
I don’t dispute the importance of character for a moment. We need to make our characters memorable and distinctive. We need to know what they’ll do in any situation, and if we want a really memorable character, make sure it’s different to what anyone else would do.
Where I part company with Child’s statement is that the most charismatic and distinctive characters ever created would be as dull as dishwater without a plot.
Characters need something to do
We know Marlowe is a man who can’t walk away from an injustice because he was faced with injustices that a man with less courage and integrity – an ordinary man – would walk away from. By contrast, memorable anti-heroes like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley or George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman are memorable because they choose the path of least integrity. We may not admire them, but we remember them. They aren’t ordinary either.
Nobody would remember Philip Marlowe if all he did was drink bourbon and play chess with himself, any more than we would remember Flashman if he ever got his wish of a quiet posting where he could drink and whore to his heart’s content. We remember the characters because the plot gives them things to do that reveal the characters in all their charisma and complexity. Just because we don’t remember the plot doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
With apologies to Lee Child
This is the second time I’ve disagreed with Lee Child in this blog, which is rather pretentious given that his literary stature is to mine as an elephant is to an ant. The reason I’ve referenced him a few times is that he’s one of the few contemporary writers who talks about the nuts and bolts of writing, which provides a convenient starting point.
I’ll try to find someone else next time I need a straw man. Meanwhile, I recommend that you read Killing Floor and assess his statements for yourself.