Monday, March 3, 2014

Sacrificing character for plot

I wrote my post Books That Linger back in January. One of the books I cited was Ender's Game. I recently watched the movie version of it and was disappointed. I thought perhaps it is because I just finished reading the book, but no--that wasn't it.

I try to watch movies as movies, even if they were once books I loved. They are totally different beasties. I thought Hunger Games was well done as a movie. Certainly, there were sacrifices, but they didn't detract from an enjoyable movie; that seems to be the consensus of those I know who've both seen and read the story. Ender's Game? Not so much. Too much characterization was sacrificed for plot, and the plot suffered for it. All that made Ender's Game a great story was diluted out. We feel for Ender in the book because we KNOW Ender. We feel his pain, his fear, his frustration because Mr. Card provided us with all we needed to do so. On the screen, having the immensely talented Asa Butterfield teary-eyed for most of the film just didn't cut it.

And that brings me to the crux of my post--sacrificing character for plot. Some of the big books do it. Not to pick on Mr. Martin again, though we seem to do so in this blog, but I've been feeling this a lot in the Song of Ice and Fire series. In the early books, the characters drove the plot along. The further in we get, the more characters we are faced with, the less defined they become. It gets harder to feel for them, even if we have in the past.

I have been working on The Shadows One Walks, fourth in my cycle, for a little over a year now. Though a reader can read any of my books without having to have read the others, they all connect in some way. With The Shadows One Walks, the reader needs to have read the other books for it to really pack its punch. Threads from Finder, A Time Never Lived, and Beyond the Gate get woven together in the fourth book. As I work through it, I'm trying to keep those threads from tangling, making sure they get tied into satisfying knots. The plot feels much bigger, and it is...and that's been the problem.

My stories are very much about the characters. As one reviewer put it, I write about the little people in big worlds. It's not about the big events, it's about the people living through them. In The Shadows One Walks, I discovered I'd been sacrificing the heart of my story--its characters--for a big plot that I never meant to write.

It's not the first time I've done this. When writing A Time Never Lived, I did the same thing. I went down the path of "political intrigue" when the story was supposed to be about a young man's search for his father, about love against the odds, and about how we are all, at the core, from the same stuff. I ended up ditching about thirty thousand words of first draft and starting at the beginning again, this time treading the right path--the character path.

I won't have to do that with The Shadows One Walks, but I do have to make adjustments--big adjustments. Such is the life of a writer. Yet it gets me wondering if movie-makers discover they've drained the story's characters from their films, and still choose to sacrifice them for bigger boom-pow-shebang plots. And authors whose stories get away from them, whose plots get so big that the characters become almost interchangeable.

So the big question is, can you forgive a weak plot for great characters? Or can you forgive weak characters for a great plot? Either? Neither? Both?

For me? I'd naturally prefer getting both great characters and a great plot, but if I had to choose, I'll choose characters every time. What about you?

Curious oysters everywhere want to know.


David Hunter said...

Martin's problem is that his characters 'grow' (god how I detest that term) too much. Jaime, as the stellar example, has lost everything that made him admirable: amorality, wit, arrogance. Ditto his sister). Or they don't 'grow' (which is actually fantastic in principle, 'growth' is a late C20 middle-class 'worth' that earlier generations would have sneered at Jaime-like) but their irritating traits become infuriating through long and repetitive purblindness (Dany, Sansa, Jon Snow, etc).

Anyone who believes characters are imroved by 'growth' should read the Flashman series. These rely utterly on his unchanging lechery, cowardice and eye for the main chance. In the later books when Fraser grew old and maudlin' he couldn't write Flashman as the unmitigated rogue he was and so added some 'growth' and the stories are much the worse for it. yet they are character-driven and not plot driven.

In short I'm all for character over plot (though there must be plot and I'm damned if I can see why it should be sacrificed to character). What I am not for is 'growth' as opposed to perhaps mere change over time (as exemplified in O'Brian's characters one of whom, for eample, starts as an idealistic, bluff young Tory and ends as a dyed-in-the-wool rather curmudgeonly and traditionalist old Tory. there's no 'growth' there, a mere sinking into the mire.

Unknown said...

I don't care how clever the plot is - if I can't engage with the characters, I just don't want to know. As a writer, I find that I have to generate the characters first, and that's true, even of historical fiction. I used the known facts to create the characters in 'Fire & Sword', and now I just let them move through their lives in their own sweet ways. I just have to remind them things like, "Excuse me, you've got to get to Edinburgh for the 18th of June, because Parliament's meeting then, okay?" So far, it's worked. Fact and fiction have intertwined quite comfortably. I think if you ever reach a situation where you have to shoehorn your characters into a situation they don't feel comfortable with, then something's gone wrong somewhere. So saying, I'm all for growth & change in a character, providing it seems like a natural progression and not something forced and unlikely.

Terri-Lynne said...

Hey, Dave! Thanks for stopping in.

I do like evolving characters, but only if that evolution is supported by events and the character's core character. I also love a character who remains true to his character, as long as it doesn't become stagnant. It's funny, because Ethen, in Finder, remains true to his character. He is what he is--the loveable sort of screw-up. He doesn't always screw up, and his heart is usually in the right place, but he does make some questionable decisions.

I have gotten comments that both love and hate that. One reader loved that he stayed true to character even if he did "grow" a bit, and another said it was bothersome that he kept making the same kinds of mistakes.

I like Jaime's evolution, though I think it's getting a bit...unrealistic. The change is happening too quickly (even in GRRM time!) and without enough impetus towards change.

Ned died for his inability to grow. Jon will end up growing to counter that.

But Sansa? I love her subtle evolution. She repeats the same matras, but the meanings have changed.

Dany? She's just getting on my nerves now. "I want to be the all-loving Great Mother! But I want to be the ruthless Dragon Queen!"

Egads, I know she's still basically a kid, but PICK ONE!

Terri-Lynne said...

Louise--I'm with you on those points. I need characters I can connect to first and foremost.

Chris Gerrib said...

Well, speaking as the resident writer of plot-based shoot 'em ups, character always matters. If the reader doesn't like your characters, it doesn't matter how well you blow stuff up.

Having said that, a lot of plot-driven stuff (hopefully not mine) takes shortcuts. You get the boozy detective and the hooker with a heart of gold instead of real people.

Terri-Lynne said...

Hey, Chris!
Sometimes, that boozy detective and hooker with a heart of gold is a necessary shortcut--like setting something in a time-period and/or place everyone knows without having to think about it. Sometimes a reader LOOKS for those tropes, and is disappointed when they don't get it, and another reader will say, "Tropey!"

David Hunter said...

I say the boozy detective is a real person. Marlowe is not Rebus . . . or anything much like him bar semi-alcoholism and bachelor status.

Stereotypes are characters too, or should be done well enough.

Mind you Alistair Maclean went through a phase of having a smart, competent, tough but beatable-uppable hero who had a sidekick who was essentially stronger (never beatable-uppable), more competent and smarter and both were pretty interchangeable between novels. He also had a phase where essentially the same hero was paired with a not so smart, competent, tough sidekick who would invariably be found dead halfway through. Predictable characters and predictable plot points but actually pretty decent yarns nonetheless (until he just started writing for the money).

Unknown said...

Thought-provoking post, Terri. I guess the best books out there weave both but I attached to work with strong characters more than strong plots.

Example, I saw Monuments Men yesterday. Great story about the heroic efforts of a small team of men. I did like the movie a lot, but I found, when it came to the team's personal stories, I wasn't invested in the characters very much. Plot, about finding the art drove the story. When the movie makers tried to show something more personal about the team members, it was lacking in development (for me). I didn't feel invested in the characters but did care that they found the artwork.

Terri-Lynne said...

Hey, Sharon! Thanks for stopping by.
That's exactly how I felt about Ender's Game. Actually, it's how I feel about most of the movies with big budgets for special effects. They tend do go for the bang and hope it's enough to make up for the lack of characterization. Both Hobbit movies sacrificed character for those effects. Whe the hell cared about Radagast and his sleigh-pulling rabbits beyond the initial, "ok, pretty cool." No, we needed scene after prolonged scene of them racing through the forest, chasing and being chased down by orcs.
You know...this is another reason why I loved Star Wars. For then, it was huge special effects, but they didn't sacrifice the plot OR the characters. Same goes for Willow.

Hmmm...I'm sensing a trend. And next I'll be saying, "Well, in MY day..."

Debbie Christiana said...

I'll always take characters over plot, although plot is important. But as human beings we want to bond, so to speak, or at least I do, and we do it with other human beings. It hard to bond with a plot. I haven't a lot of fantasy but I do read horror and I think that's why Stephen King's movies are very seldom as good as the books. His characters are written with such depth that we know how they are feeling and it's so important to the story. In his movies, they can't do that. Cujo *sp?* is the perfect example. We read the dogs struggles of what was going on in his mind while attacking the family he loved, but in the movie it was a big, mean dog with rabies, going after his family, with regrets or feeling. So yeah, special effects can't take the place of emotions.

Sharon, I saw Monuments Men and I really liked it. I thought the Christmas music playing for Bill Murray's character was very touching and showed how those two characters had evolved and become friends. But I understand what you mean.

Nice post, Terri ;)

Terri-Lynne said...

Thanks, Deb!

I bet that is a sticky point with Mr. King, concerning some of the movies made from his books.
Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Carrie and The Green Mile, IMO were all very well done, characterization-wise.

Again, I am sensing a pattern! The bigger the effects, the less characterization.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Terri. I'm wrestling with a tough revision right now (or I will be as soon as I finish polishing my procrastination skills). Even though this is my third book and many-hundredth revision I feel like Cinderella's stepsister forcing the glass slipper onto my big foot, trying to make the plot ideas fit, instead of listening to the characters who are already there and already want something. Great post!

Terri-Lynne said...

Marybeth--just don't cut off a heel to get it in! :)

Listen to the story. If you're fighting it, you're going in the wrong direction.

Thanks for stopping by, love!

Anonymous said...

Like Mary Beth, I'm struggling through plot development right now. Maybe I need to go back and take a good look at my characters. That makes sense, because the most common questions I find myself trying to figure out go something like "But why would she even be there?" or "Why does he want to do that?" So it all boils down to who they are and what is their motive.

Eric T Reynolds said...

Hi, Maura! Thanks for stopping in. :)

You know, you can ask them. You might be surprised by the answers hiding in the back of your brain.

Terri-Lynne said...

Dammit! That was ME, Maura. I thought I signed out of Eric's account. D'oh!

Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain said...

If the characters are not well-defined, the reader will get confused as to who's who, and possible abandon the book. This is especially so in big stories with legions of characters. I tend to reread only those books with characters I want to spend time with again. On the other hand readers also want to know what happens next. Character gives us warmth and identification. Plot is what makes it exciting. It's a delicate balancing act.

Anonymous said...

I can't even see how plot and character are separate things. They may seem orthogonal, but they're mutually self-generating. Lose one, you lose both.

When you describe boom-pow, that's not plot, that's just special effects--the plot's adverbs. And I know how you feel about adverbs ;)

Anonymous said...

My first, throwaway answer was to say any writer had better have either decent characters or a decent plot. Otherwise it's 'just one damned thing after another'. History's like that; fiction can't be.

But a little thought showed me my error: it's not an either/or situation. One can have both. Done well (which is key to everything), the point of the character-plot continuum of any given story doesn't matter. This includes the extreme ends of the spectrum too. There are books I love - and I think this includes the entire output of Julian Barnes - where you'd be hard put to identify a plot at all. Does it matter? For a writer as good as him, not at all. At the other extreme, there's Agatha Christie, whose characters are little better than cardboard cut outs but, given she could write plots like 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', who cares? Pure plot books can be deeply satisfying, especially if they set a puzzle for the reader. And so can deep, intensive character studies holding an mirror up to the world. There's room for it all.

Terri-Lynne said...

Hey, Renee! Thanks for stopping by!

Yes, a delicate balancing act it is--and that's what makes a story good, when it finds that balance. I've seen, too often, stories that have little character development and a plot that becomes too big for its britches--not just in movies, but books too.

Terri-Lynne said...

Cal! A plot's adverbs. I love it! You are exactly right, they are, like adverbs in a story, to be used wisely and well, not thrown in for emphasis.

I always come back to the dragon scene in Goblet of Fire. However one feels about Ms. Rowling's writing skills, the purpose of that scene had been--in the book--to show us a lot about HARRY, about how he was feeling, how it connected to his past, his present, his future. What it became in the movie was a lot of adverbs! A 20 minute action scene that had, really, little to do with the plot at all. It was there for the "wow" factor, and probably blinded a lot of viewers with the dazzle.

Terri-Lynne said...

Hey, Harriet!

IMO, it should never be either/or. It can lean more towards plot, or towards character, but there should be a good balance of both for the story to be truly great.

I truly can't think of a book that was all-plot and cardboard characters that I truly enjoyed. But I can think of a few movies that I did. I guess that says something about adding that sha-bang, it CAN make a so-so movie more enjoyable. We humans are such crows!

David Hunter said...

Adverbs. Don't get me started. I'll just say that adverb-hating leads folk astray faster than you can say clockwise.