Write it now, part 25: high literature versus plot driven novels

Novel writing, we are told, falls into two categories; literature – which is ‘character driven’ where the drama comes from the personalities and the actual setting might be quite unadventurous otherwise; or ‘plot-driven’, where a character is secondary to dramatic stories.

Hmmn...who shall I name in this one?
Hmmn…who shall I name in this one?

The former, stereotypically, appears in the kinds of novels that our English teachers used to torture us with at high school. I recall mine was a complete assassin of any interest we might have had in the classics – he even made Catch 22 boring, if you can imagine that.

Plot-driven stories usually appear in the cool novels we read for brain-turned-off entertainment.  Or watch on TV. Stereotypically. The characters are often backdrops to some adventure that we experience vicariously – the driving force here isn’t the character but the emotional release we get from the adventure story

Stereotypically, again, literature is often associated with older readers, plot-driven stories with kidult or teen tales.

But do the twain really need to be separated?

Sometimes, too, the priorities we associate with ‘literature’ can turn up in quite different stories. Look at Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible, for instance. The characters were cardboard – but the story was an astonishingly powerful exploration of the dissonance between human perception and the future relationship with machines.

My take is that there is probably a balance. I’d hesitate to call it a hybrid, or something that falls between the cracks – I’m talking about stories where the characters address most of what we think of as ‘literature’, but where the plot itself can be adventurous.

Put another way, we know what sells – which is the plot driven stuff. But the onus is still there to create great people (not ‘characters’) to fill the pages, And great stories.

What’s your take on this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


20 thoughts on “Write it now, part 25: high literature versus plot driven novels

  1. It’s all about finding the correct balance and for each writer, each genre, and each story that balance point is a bit different. When it’s found it’s magic, for then literature becomes entertainment.

    1. Yes it does – and it’s just wonderful when you find a book that hits that balance. I think the point where that balance occurs often rests with the reader; different readers will have different comfort points, I suspect.

      1. I very much agree. When the writer finds their ideal balance and it connects with the right reader there’s a line of communication that could easily be called magic.

  2. The novels I tend to like most are the ones with well-rounded characters with whom I can truly emphasise. Once in a while I’ll read a novel that’s completely plot-driven (e.g. Matthew Reilly), but one is usually enough and then I go back to character-stories. But as you say, they can be combined. In my mind Terry Pratchett succeeds brilliantly at that, writing wacky, exciting plots but also creating incredibly real characters that become a part of you over time.

    1. I have leafed through Reilly’s books in the shop, kind of wished I’d written them (well, had his sales figures) but never actually purchased or read one. A total contrast, for sure, to Pratchett – who is an extraordinary writer.

      I almost – but didn’t quite – manage to meet him a few years back. He was in New Zealand and was going to come along with a group of writers (‘fans’) to the pub, but didn’t in the end owing to jetlag.

  3. Surely you have to have good characters in order to give life to a good plot. I hate TV series where the characters are 2-dimensional, even if the story is great. But if the characters are ‘real’ and believable and, most importantly, interesting, then the whole story becomes memorable.

    1. Yes you do, I agree – balance with elements of all approaches is a winning combination. But it’s surprising how many authors don’t. Not that I am thinking of Dan Brown. Well, yes I am actually – wholly plot-driven stories with characters who provide a cardboard cypher on which to hang the action. Euuch. Of course, if I read ’em I can’t put ’em down, but that’s not because of any compelling side of the characterisation… 🙂

    1. They do. And striking that balance means a dimensionality of characterisation can shine through, I think, even where the story is plot -driven. To me that’s a better approach – from my perspective, making a more appealing read in all respects. In point of fact, I’ve just finished reading a book that does exactly that, in fact – Piper Bayard’s ‘Firelands’, a wonderful novel.

  4. Character driven versus plot driven is always such an interesting point, and I agree that the balance may lie with the reader, while the writer is always aware of the seesaw. I know that my own reading preference is for character driven, the high literature to which you refer, and I even feel the need for the purple prose of the 19th and early 20th century, now and then.

    As one of your readers commented, from time to time I want to read something that is plot driven, turning page after page, anxious for what happens next. I suspect all readers want good writing and if writers can deliver in one category or the other–or even both–the readers will keep coming back. I believe my own writing to be much more character driven.

    As always, Matthew, a thought-provoking post in this wonderful series of yours.


    1. I think you’re right – it boils down to good writing. Personal taste also plays a part, I think. I confess that my liking for literature was assassinated by my high school English teacher – he wasn’t inimical, just useless, and he managed to render everything from Shakespeare to Ken Kesey into ‘boring’.. It took me years to get the literature mojo back.

      The story had a plus side, though – this guy was so useless that my parents sent me off to be formally trained in writing at the local polytechnic, to make up for the worthlessness of my high school English education. It worked.

  5. I always thought it was a combination of the two; however, sometimes the plot may be more intriguing, and sometimes the characters sweep us away without much plot. There’s only something like 19 plots, but it amazes me how they can be woven and twisted to seem like hundreds.

  6. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    One thing that baffles me is that the publishers tell you what’s selling. That aside, I agree with the comments said about needing a mix. I stopped reading a book because the character names were so goofy. I never read far enough to find out if it had a great plot simply because I didn’t like the characters.
    Do you feel one is better than the other?

    1. I don’t think we can make a precise value judgement because so much comes down to personal tastes. But it would be fair to say that a novel with a wide commercial appeal probably is more plot driven but has due blend of the precepts of literature.

Comments are closed.