If I have to choose between plot and characters…

The shelves of a library, filled higgledy-piggledy with books.

I have been spending a lot of time rereading lately (sorry about the lack of book reviews) and as I do so, I’m thinking about what makes books perennial favourites for me, and the age-old plot versus characters debate. In an ideal world, I like a book with amazing characters and a great plot, and the two really do weave together — it’s hard to have one without the other. But if I’m going to be forced to choose between an intricately plotted book with boring characters or a sluggish character study, I’m going to go with the characters. Because while I read for a lot of reasons, one of those reasons is glimpses into other lives and experiences, whether a girl with a secret in Cindy Pon’s Sacrifice or a girl with tremendous and complicated power in Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch. 

A novel with a bad plot is a frustrating thing to read. Maybe it’s just not at all believable, or the glaring holes in the character’s logic can’t be explained so you spend your time gritting your teeth and muttering things at the page like ‘but why wouldn’t you just…how…but if…GAH!’ Maybe it’s just a really boring plot with no real stakes, so you’re having a hard time figuring out why you are bothering to read at all. Like yay, you’re eating a madeleine. Good for you, bro. Good for you. It’s especially irritating when books with terrible plots are pitched as prestige novels in a way that’s designed to make you feel like an inadequate philistine for not ‘getting it.’ Trust your gut, my friends: If a book feels boring and bad, it is, no matter who wrote it or what kinds of lofty ideals are discussed on the flap copy.

A novel with bad characters is also frustrating to read. I’m not talking about well-developed characters that aren’t your jam (well, I mean, those are frustrating to read for sure, but that’s not what I mean when I talk about ‘bad characters’), but characters that are flat. Lifeless. Dull. They’re so unmemorable that you have trouble telling them apart and you honestly don’t really care what happens to them. Oh no, Timmy fell down a well. Cry me a river, right?

For me as a reader, and your mileage may vary, even if a plot is amazing, if I don’t care about who’s involved, the book is a slog. Why should I get invested in a story when there are no real people behind it? It doesn’t matter if it’s a mystery, a smashing swords and sorcery adventure, or a contemporary. The plot could be thoughtful and complicated and beautiful and meticulously thought out. But if the characters are dull, I’m usually setting it down within a few pages. I need a hook — and the story isn’t the hook for me.

On the other hand, if the plot stinks but the characters are great, I’m far more likely to go along for the ride, because it’s worth it. Up to a certain point. Even I have a breaking point and if the plot is just ridiculously illogical or completely static (remember, plot drives character development!) I’m likely to bail at a certain point, because, just, I have better things to do. But I will happily read a book about two people sitting on a pier and fishing for 400 pages, if the people are well developed, cool characters. Maybe they’re telling stories about things past and we get character development that way. Maybe their fishing adventure is more complicated than meets the eye and that unfolds over the course of the story. Whatever: I’m there for it as long as people are doing things, including developing and growing internally.

Everyone has their preferences — some are super into plot-driven fiction, while others really do insist on both a good plot and excellent characters. But the way I think about what I read also influences what I write, and it’s interesting for me to explore how it influences my writing. I was talking with a friend who’s a super plot-driven person recently, and she was struggling with a very character-driven project — and I was commiserating with her because I was working on something that was all about plot. Her love of plot made her project much stronger, while my love of character was certainly influencing what I was working on, and hopefully that will come through in the finished products that (hopefully) people will read someday.

But it also made me think more broadly, about how this applies not just to fiction, but our own lives. The people we are drawn to and the people we relate to. How we interact with people who have their own complicated backstories and flaws. Am I more or less tolerant of people who have some serious personality flaws because I love watching characters like them develop and change on the page? Is my understanding of character development an advantage in some interactions, or a disadvantage in others? Does my preference for characters and form over plot and substance make me more or less compassionate and thoughtful? These are the kinds of things I think about when I’m clinging to a pole on BART deep under the Bay, turning the page of a book that’s either engrossing or frustrating me, watching the life of the train unfold all around me.

Image: Library, Stewart Butterfield, Flickr