An American Editor

June 2, 2011

On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid?

Generally, novels seem to fall primarily within two types of characterizations: plot-driven and character-driven. A plot-driven novel has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot. There are defenders of both, but I find both lacking. I think the difference between literature fiction and nonliterature fiction is the hybrid novel that finds a careful balance between being character driven and plot driven.

I broached this topic in an earlier article, Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the topic.

I’ve said many times that I consider fiction read-once-then-throw-away books, which is my justification for buying nonfiction in pbook form, select fiction in pbook form, and the vast majority of fiction in ebook form. It is also my justification for not rereading a novel, again, with a few exceptions, such as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Yet there really is a more important difference and that is the difference between classifying something as simply fiction, or a novel, on the one hand, and on the other hand classifying it as literature, something to be read now and in years to come.

On one of the fora of which I am a member, the question arose about starting a literary book club as opposed to just a monthly book club. The idea being that the books chosen would be literary classics, not just today’s bestseller. But there was no agreement on what constitutes “literature” — How do you define it? How do you recognize it? How does a group recognize it? And so on.

I had no answer until it dawned on me that every book I would consider literature (as opposed to simply a good fiction read) is simultaneously character driven and plot driven, that is, it is a hybrid whose characters and plot are both memorable years after first reading.

A well-plotted novel keeps a reader’s attention while reading the book. But it is the rare plot that can be said to be so unique as to stand apart from all other plots. Generally, one plot is reminiscent of another plot, with the difference being in the details and how well the author crafts the storyline.

A well-characterized novel absorbs the reader in the characters. Perhaps little is remembered about the plot, but the character(s) is(are) memorable. Here there is greater uniqueness, but even so, one can recall other books with similar characters. Again, the author’s craft is in how well constructed (and deconstructed) the character(s) is(are).

Literary fiction (or literature), on the other hand, is a finely crafted balance — not necessarily an equal balance — between plot and character so that remembering one causes you to remember the other. We celebrate the authors who find that balance by buying and reading their books year after year. For these authors and books, publishing’s long tail has significance, especially as new generations of readers discover them.

I can hear folk saying but J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which is considered a literary classic, really is a terrible book. I admit, it is far from my favorite. Yet that notion of like and dislike is really not a criterion for classifying the book. Consider this: Many of us read Catcher in the Rye in the 1960s yet we still recall Holden Caulfield and his story. How many books, of all the many hundreds, if not thousands, of books you have read since, can you say that about? In my case, it is a handful, probably less than 1%, yet isn’t that “literary immortality” what many authors want?

Does this mean that the difference between a good author and a not-so-good author, between a good book and a not-so-good book is whether the author has achieved that fine balance? No, because there is nothing inherently wrong with a book that is either plot driven or character driven. Rather, what is at stake is whether a decade from now — perhaps even a year from now — the author and his or her writing are remembered by anyone, whether the books and the author are being discovered by new generations. For some authors literary immortality is not on their horizon; for others, they strive for it, sometimes making it, more often not making it.

But I think the key to that literary immortality is finding that balance for a particular book. The balance doesn’t have to be 50-50 or 60-40, but it clearly cannot be 90-10.

There is yet another reason why it is the hybrid model that leads to literary immortality but plot and character driven do not: human nature! By that I mean we humans seek to identify with others, seek to escape from daily life for a few minutes, seek something that we do not have through literary escapism. A well-written plot-driven novel about unlocking a secret has starred in hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of novels like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The books sell millions of copies on release, then are rarely heard from again. In a decade, the question will be Dan Brown who?

Similarly, if Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, written in 1927, had been solely character driven, it would have died on the literary vine, just as The Da Vinci Code has done. Ask yourself this: Do you know anyone who is discussing the characters or the plot of The Da Vinci Code today? Yet Elmer Gantry is still on reading lists and still banned by some evangelical churches — more than 8 decades after publication, Elmer Gantry is still causing a furor. Yet Elmer Gantry, although a hybrid, is heavier on the character-driven side of the balance.

Heavier on the plot-driven side are the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. People remember not only the plots but the characterizations. Watson draws sympathy from readers for his dealings with Holmes and movies are still being made based on the stories — because the characters give a sense of realism and the books are hybrids, just heavier on the plot than on the characterizations.

To my way of thinking, only a well-written hybrid can be a 5+-star book. Plot-driven and character-driven books can be 5-star books, but they cannot be that little bit more that is needed to put them in the literary immortality category. Something to think about, but not necessarily something that requires anything be done. Quality craftsmanship is still quality craftsmanship and is the first requirement; worrying about literary immortality is something that should occur after mastering the art of writing.

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