Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Which Advice?

There are a couple approaches to writing a novel. Some people like to write novels by the seat of their pants and just write, while others like to develop an outline. Forgive me if I generalize a little, but it seems to me that seat of the pants novelists favor character driven stories while outliners favor plot driven stories. For our purposes, let’s define these two terms.

Character Driven Story – a story in which the author creates
interesting characters with a natural dislike for each other, throws them
together and sees what happens

Plot Driven Story – a story in which the author creates an interesting plot and
then goes and figures out what kind of characters would do such a thing

In a character driven story, the author might say he has a company owner and a union boss as characters. You can pretty much bet that the plot is going to have something about union negotiations, since that is what normally brings these people together. Or if you go at it form the other direction, if you know the plot is about union negotiations then you can probably guess that there will be a company owner and a union boss involved. If you know the union boss is going to set fire to the owner’s home, then you can guess that he is hot tempered.

Both approaches can produce good stories and often do. Interesting characters tend to produce an interesting plot. Likewise, an interesting plot tends to produce interesting characters. So far be it from me to tell you which approach to use, but whatever you do, don’t try to mix them.

Consider a character based writer who has developed an interesting character who happens to be an uneducated farmer. Now she picks up a book by an outliner that describes how to develop a plot. The writer thinks up an interesting James Bond type plot about and follows the outliner’s advice about developing the plot. She sits down to write, with her outline and her character. Now we have conflict of the wrong kind. An uneducated farmer is unlikely to find himself in a James Bond situation and wouldn’t have the knowledge to do what is required if he did. The writer is now forced to either change the uneducated farmer into a more James Bond type character or to change the plot to discover what the uneducated farmer might do if he is thrust into a James Bond situation. If she tries to keep both the character and the plot then it will only come across as corny.

I think what this tells us is that we must be selective about what we do with the advice we receive from authors, even highly successful authors. If you have outlined a plot, what character based writers tell you about developing characters isn’t always going to work. That’s not to say that we should completely ignore what they say, because we don’t develops characters or plot in a vacuum. We just need to be aware that we don’t have room to tweak our characters a great deal, since the plot defines many of their characteristics. Likewise, if the characters are predefined, we may have to ignore some of what people say about defining the plot because there are things in the characters’ natures that will prevent them from doing some things.