From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Friday, August 16

Great Characters vs Great Plots. Which is a Stronger Hook for You?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Anna Staniszewski did a great post recently on Six Reasons I Stopped Reading (And How to Avoid Them) and it triggered an interesting conversation on Twitter. The discussion was on how flat characters can kill a great premise, and I realized something interesting.

If I don't care for a character, I'll stop reading the book, but I'll often skim ahead or check the end to see what happens.

If I don't like the plot, I stop reading even if I really like the characters.

Does this mean the plot is a stronger hook for me than the characters?

I find this particularly interesting because I'm the opposite in movies and TV. I'll watch the same plot over and over if I love the characters. Some shows, I don't care about the plot at all and just enjoy the interplay between the people. I might even make fun of the plot, but it has Soandso in it and I love Soandso so I watch anyway.

Perhaps a visual medium is more forgiving, or there's the added benefit of seeing an actual person versus imagining one. I suspect viewers also bring in their memories and feelings about the actors from other roles, which doesn't translate the same for books.

Obviously both are important to a great story, and when both work we get magic, but this has made me wonder if plot-driven writers are hooked more by plot, and character-driven writers are hooked more by character. (and if the opposite is true for movies and TV). Does one aspect call out to a writer who leans toward that aspect?

I know plot grabs me first when I'm book shopping (well, cover and title actually do, but I'm talking about after it's in my hot little hands). If a cover blurb doesn't offer me an interesting plot I put the book back down. If it focuses too much on the character and why she's special, I tend to set it back down.

I don't know if this means anything beyond "we like what we like," but maybe a preference could shed light into why we "write what we write."

So what about you? Are you hooked by character or plot first? Do you stop reading if one is working but not the other?


  1. I'm all about character. In books, movies, TV - I have to fall for the character, believe in them, want them to succeed, hate them with the fire of a thousand suns, sympathise with them. If I can't relate to, connect with or feel something for the characters then that's it. Doesn't matter how cool the premise, how perfect the plot - if it's all happening to someone I couldn't care less about, I switch off, put it down and walk away.

    I guess I'm a more character driven story teller and look for character first in stories across all media.

  2. I'll put a book down if either the plot or the character isn't working. I think for me it's the interplay between character and plot. There has to be both or I'm not happy. That said, when reading synopses to decide what to read next, I definitely gravitate toward the plot heavy descriptions.

  3. Depends on my mood, actually. There are some genres I enjoy—hard sci-fi, for example—wherein the characters matter less than the plot does. But I can also connect strongly enough with a side character to keep reading a series wherein the narrator and plot irritate me.

  4. I am all about the characters! I can forgive a lot if the characters move me, not so much if they don't. I don't enjoy reading plot-driven novels. I want to go through the entire transformation and arc of a character in a story.

  5. I think characters draw me in more than plot. Maybe it's because I pick apart story structure on reflex, but few plots can keep my interest if I'm not invested in the characters. Similarly, if I can't connect with the protagonist, or they take an action that causes me to lose sympathy for them, odds are good I'll put the book down.

  6. I think it's a little bit of both, though plot probably has a stronger pull. Although I'm one of those people who compulsively HAVE to finish a book once I start. I think there are only two books that I just could not finish, and both of them were so focused on description I don't remember characters or plot.

  7. Anonymous1:42 PM EDT

    Good question. If there is no plot on the cover or the first few pages, I stop right there. With a great premise, I may hate the protagonist and antagonist, but I'll keep reading. Looks like I'm a plot guy.

  8. I've been thinking about this since our Twitter conversation, too, and I realized that for me, premise can go a long way. For example, I've been watching "Under the Dome" which perhaps doesn't have the best acting or most compelling characters, but the premise is interesting enough that I want to see what happens next. I'm not as invested in the show as I might be if those other factors were stronger, but I'm still sticking with it. Not sure what this means, but it's interesting to think about!

  9. I'm with Carradee. It depends on my mood. :)

    In TV, I think I care about the characters more--as you said, for that interplay aspect. In movies, I often want a dumb-but-fun plot, but characters are what make me *love* the movie. In books, I want both.

    Or I should say, that I need to care about both aspects in at least a middling way, or there's no point to the story. Great question! (You might have inspired a blog post. :) )

  10. For me, it needs to have both great characters and plot. But I'm like you. If it doesn't have a plot that grabs me, I won't keep reading. I think with TV, the show is one hour or less so even if it's not fantastic, there's a shorter investment of time each week, which is why we may be willing to watch. But a book takes hours to read.

  11. I read several series of mysteries for the characters, without really trying to follow the plot. . . .

  12. Anonymous5:06 PM EDT

    I never thought about this before! I guess for me it would have to be characters, at least according to my recent reads. I've been on a NA kick lately, and the plots are often times predictable and overly angst-filled, but if the characters are interesting (particularly if the dialog BETWEEN the characters is good and banter-y) it can make up for a lot of things. Yes, even egregious typos and plot gaps.

    I just barely managed to finish a YA that, at first glance, had one of the most interesting sounding and unique plots I'd come across in a long time. But the characters were flat and boring to read about. Finishing it too far longer than it would have if I'd been engaged with the characters.

  13. For me, I have to click with at least one character. It doesn't have to be the main character, but I have to like SOMEBODY. I love early nineteenth century literature where the plots sometimes get sidelined in favor of subplots or even mini-essays (though I may skip ahead if I hit too many of those) so I can't really say plot is my primary thing.

    On the other hand, I once not only put a book down but refused to read anything else by the author because his plot didn't move. It was just a series of some guy fighting monsters. Then he'd defeat it and have to fight more monsters. Gah! Not. A. Plot! No matter how many fight scenes you have, if they don't advance the story you're just spinning your wheels! I guess plot is more important to me than I realized.

  14. I'm another one who is all about character. I have a critical eye towards plot and structure, probably because I teach writing, so when I'm reading for pleasure I try to dissociate slightly from the plot and go with the flow of what the characters experience. If I don't like them, I don't want to be in their lives or their heads.

    It hasn't been mentioned here, but something else which causes me to close a book is its style. If I don't enjoy the language, mood, or cadence of the writing, I will stop reading regardless of how interesting the characters or story are. Infact, upon thinking about it, I have to say it's style which influences from the first couple of pages whether I read a book or not.

  15. Plot intrigues me, makes me pick up the book. Characters draw me into the first 50-100 pages. But after that plot makes me stay, even a compelling character can lose my interest if nothing is happening. It's like a crumb trail for me. One leads to the next. But I agree, I'm a lot more forgiving with film and TV with lack of plot.

  16. Characters for me. I can give a book a lot of leeway if I like what the character is thinking or doing. I'll give it a little more if I like the setting. In fact, the last few books I loved ... the plot didn't really start cooking until almost halfway through the story, but the scenery, characters, and set up had me hooked.

  17. Looks pretty evenly split, which feels about right, actually. It's also curious that many are hooked by plot, but character decides how long they keep reading. And those who said they struggle to finish a book even even with flat characters if the premise is strong.

    Very interesting!

    Anna, glad you wrote that post :) This has been fun!

    Jami, looking forward to you rift off my rift, lol.

  18. It's usually about plot for me, but there are exceptions. Dostoyevsky has both, which is the best >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  19. Michelle Ladner and I are on the same page I think. I'll buy a book after reading the basics of the plot printed on the cover, but if there isn't at least one character that intrigues me chances are the book won't get finished. After that, the magic happens when character and plot work together in harmony.

    The same rule, however, does not apply to movies and TV shows for me. I can sit and watch bad stuff for hours just to see how a story ends even if I find the characters unrelatable. I guess that's because it's just less thinking on my part.

    I guess I am a character driven kind of chick. :-)

  20. I'd say both for me. My favorite books tend to be memorable people in exciting plots, though I probably lean more toward characters.

    For writing, I need characters first and plot second.

  21. Oooh, I've never thought about it before. I'd have to say they have equal importance to me.

  22. I'm into more character driven stories; if I love the characters then I am more forgiving of plot. Although, when it comes to movies I care way more about plot than character and with TV shows it has to have a balance of pretty good plot and characters to keep me from mocking it.

    My sister is the opposite, she is into plot driven novels and yet when it comes to TV shows she is very forgiving of plot holes/unbelievability. I just don't get her.

  23. I prefer character driven novels. I love the psychology and thoughts behind each character and watching them change and grow as if they were real people. It feeds my interest more than a person who is shoved in a place to be there.

    But, of course, if there isn't ANY plot, I won't read the book.

  24. I recently read a book with lots of diffent POVs, this meant that as soon as I had invented in one character I was transported somewhere completely new. If the overall plot and world hadn't intrigued me I could quite easily have stopped reading. Before I had read that book I would have said I was more character driven , but now I think it depends on the book.
    For films and TV it totally depends on my mood.

  25. I'm all about character, character, and character! That's why I can read (and LOVE) books like Catcher in the Rye and the Great Gatsby that are light on plot but heavy on character. In fact, I'd say these stories are purely driven by character. And that hooks me. I think this is also why I like graphic novels. Maybe this relates to what you were saying about the importance of characters in TV/movies as a visual medium. I find most graphic novels are reliant on the characters. I guess this is because it is their action and dialogue, and only that, that drive plot forwards. There isn't expose or narration (generally speaking). And I love that. I create characters all the time in my head and THEN create their stories. If I don't like or sympathize with the characters in a novel, it's lost me.

  26. It's interesting that I'm not the only one who has a different set of "rules" for TV and movies.

    Marti, I think you're right about the less thinking part re TV. Less investment, so were not as picky.

    Stephanie, very cool insight about graphic novels (and I guess comic books as well). They totally fall under a more visual storytelling device.

  27. To make an anology with music: plots are the chords, meter, and melodies, characters are the timbres, rhythms, and harmonies.

    You can retell a story numerous ways with the same plot but different details and execution, just as you can cover a song with the same chords but different instrumentations, rhythms, tempo, mood, and so on.

    I seem to be oriented much more towards plot, but I'm hesitant to acknowledge it as a personal bias rather than having been more exposed to plot-driven rather than character-driven fiction for whatever reason.