Plot vs Character

Writing is hard.  No other way to put it.  There are hundreds of thousands of writers…and they follow a bell curve of talent like any other group.  When one of them stands out, it’s fairly obvious because of the sheer amount of material with which to compare.  And writing is one of those things that people do for 2 reasons – cathartic and exposure.  I do it for the former, I have no illusions that I am some grand auteur.  But I’ve met (we all have) many a writer who thought they were the next Stephen King…

And even the best writers have off days.  Back to Mr. King.  His “best” writing period was when he was on more drugs than a rock band.   His magnum opus series of the Dark Tower took a rather significant nosedive in quality once he got clean.  I’m not saying he should not have gotten clean, but you can draw a pretty clear line in terms of quality output. Bradbury wrote 5x as much that was drivel compared to noticeable.  Asimov was all over the map, and in later years admitted he was writing more for the paycheck than the story (which is crazy if you look at all the things he did).

Then you have writers who just can’t complete their work.  Robert Jordan passed away.  GRR Martin has writers block.  TV shows / movies swap writers over the years.  Point being, initial quality is not reflective of future quality – simply higher odds.

Character vs Plot

Arguably the best writers are those that write characters first, and the plot second.  They avoid tropes, and require some forethought to resolving situations as they are restricted.  I mean if you’re talking about a woman in the 20th century, they are not all of a sudden going to find a jetpack and escape a pack of wild gorillas.  Sometimes, these writers get painted into a corner.  The plot says that they need to be in a certain spot, but the writer knows that it’s going to take some logical steps to get there.  And we end up with extra chapters/books rather than a shortcut.

Plot writers are all about story and need the people in it to make wildly differing decisions to make the story move forward in interesting ways.  Dan Brown is a perfect example.  He writes great adventures, edge of your seat.  His characters are super heroes, who suffer from continual mental lapses, and the text is full of contradictory information.  In many cases, the writing is so poor that solutions become present without the reader being able to make any logical connections.

Game of Thrones

Books first.  I’ve read them and they are primarily character driven.  They make consistent decisions based on circumstances, and the fact that main line characters die is evidence that sometimes the plot takes precedence.  It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good to read though.  The important part of the books is that while set in a fantasy setting, the story is fundamentally about the character interactions.  The Red Wedding is a much more important event as compared to the Red Witch’s powers.

The TV series followed the books, with some artistic liberties.  Those liberties were a bit over the top in some cases (the crypt scene in particular).  Still, it generally followed the book story line.  Then the books stopped and the show continued on its own path.  While there were high spots, there were quite a few low ones.  All of a sudden characters could travel at the speed of light.  They’d miraculously survive insurmountable odds multiple times.  They’d charge into certain death when a more advantageous option was present.

But people still with it, because of the potential of greatness.  These last few episodes though… they are pushed almost entirely by plot.  A “threat” since the opening act of the first episode is dealt with in a single episode.  A hugely strategic advantage (dragon) would not be used on a kamikaze run.  When an entire army is exhausted, you don’t walk them hundreds of miles against a waiting foe.   You don’t pair up an asexual character with their entirely platonic friend… over a drinking game no less.

Writing endings is notoriously difficult.  In life, there are not clear ends and even less so when you are tracking dozens of character threads.  Lost did an amazing job at proving that point.  Sopranos was the exact opposite, since it focused every bit on the family and there wasn’t final closure, simply life moving on.  Breaking Bad is another good example of a solid writing due to narrow characters.

So while GoT certainly has spectacle attached, the odds of it finding footing in 2 more episodes are pretty darn small.   Too many spinning plates, not enough time to address them.

7 thoughts on “Plot vs Character

  1. Chalk me up as another one who prefers characters over plot.

    I’m happy to follow a hundred episodes of Critical Role because the story is primarily character-based – who are the player characters, their relationships, their backstories, where they go from here, how the world responds to them.

    Meanwhile a lot of MMO stories (GW2 being the prime one in my mind at the moment) are primarily plot-based. It’s so obvious, like TV writers, that someone has dictated “ok, these are the plot milestones we need to hit, because we have other depts creating content that needs some kind of lore explanation for it, and I don’t really care how you get there as long as we hit the plot point.” It does make for terrible stories.

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  2. I’m curious, which book(s) in the Dark Tower sequence did Stephen King get clean at?

    I’m doing a read through at the moment, I was really enjoying it, but have found The Wolves of Calla (where I am at the moment… still) to be quite a slog. I’ll finish… Because you know, I got this far, but gawd. I suppose I shouldn’t be too dramatic, I still find it entertaining and there are moments of brilliance. But it doesn’t feel quite the same.

    So whether this aligns to getting clean, or whether this is simply a storyline I’m not enjoying as much as the others… Yeah!

    If you like character stories though, I’d highly recommend a read of the Greatcoat’s series (starting with Traitor’s Blade) by Sebastien de Castell. The current story is wrapped up with 4 books, but hoo boy do I want some more.

    Also The Gentleman Bastard series (starting with The Lies of Locke Lamora) by Scott Lynch. This series is a bit better known, so may’ve already given it a try. This one possibly carries character a little far in that elements of the second book in particular feel copied from the first, but overall I forgave it for the character interactions and development are so top notch.

    …Man, I’d better watch out or I’m going to end up with a book blog again along with my gaming one. Hah.

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    • Needful Things was his first post-drug novel, which puts that at book 4 : Wizard and Glass. That was the one that looked at Roland as a teen…and I really started losing interest from there on.

      Thanks for the recommendations. I enjoyed NK Jemison`s Broken Earth series. Neat premise and was interesting to see the character growth throughout.

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      • Ahh!! That would make sense. I kept thinking, ‘This can’t be the whole book’ — and then it was. I had bought into the story being told by the end, but it took a while. For some inkling of how long I’ve been ‘working’ through Wolves of Calla, my memory was telling me that the events with Blaine the Mono was just the last book I read. Hah.

        I had been consuming the others quite quickly, but these ones I find other things to do which I suppose is never a good sign.

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  3. My favorite series of all time is Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles. Lots of books, fantasy sci/fi. Haven’t read it in a decade, which means it is about time to pick it up again!

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