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Are characters more important than plot? What come first plot or character?

Pauline Rowson plotting her crime novelsl The prescribed wisdom states that novels are either plot driven or character driven. What, you may ask is the difference? And it's a very good question. Essentially character driven novels centre around the protagonist's journey, his or her internal thoughts, the experiences he/she undergoes, the choices he/she makes which ultimately drive and affect the plot. Whereas plot driven novels focus on yes, you've guessed it, the plot. Here the protagonist takes a particular action which drives the plot and there are plot twists and turns as a result, action and conflicts which in turn drive the plot to its outcome. If that sounds rather confusing then don't worry, you are not alone. For me the distinction between the two is rather blurred although essentially critics and reviewers will say that my novels are plot driven and I agree to an extent. But the two  aspects - character and plot - are invariably interlinked.

The characters drive the plot. Characters must be real in the sense of their motivations, behaviour, personalities which along with their experiences, background and education drive their actions which in turn affects the plot.

Dead Passage A DI Andy Horton crime novel by Pauline RowsonIn the case of my rugged and flawed detective, Inspector Andy Horton, he is a man driven by a desperate need to belong and a strong sense of justice to see that those who exploit others, particularly the weak and vulnerable, are caught and banged up. He's greatly influenced by a childhood spent in children's homes and foster homes after his mother disappeared when he was ten, and his subsequent need to discover what happened to her. His actions, not always approved of by his nit-picking boss, the by-the-book-copper DCI Lorraine Bliss, affect the investigations and therefore to some extent the outcome of the plot.

But the DI And Horton crime novels are also plot driven in that I start with a body in a certain location on Andy Horton's patch (Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight), or parts of a body (FATAL CATCH), a situation such as a missing person (SHROUD OF EVIL) or even a mysterious phone call by a woman asking Horton to meet her on a ferry (DEAD PASSAGE). So there is an investigation to undertake which gives the novel a certain structure and hence drives the plot.

Art Marvik Mystery Thrillers by Pauline RowsonIn the Art Marvik mystery thrillers, Marvik is struggling to adjust to life out of the Royal Marines following injuries sustained in combat. He thought he’d be able to carve out a new career for himself on the sea, but his first job as a private maritime security operative goes very wrong when the luxury motor cruiser he was travelling on and had been detailed to guard, gets attacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean, and Marvik finds himself with a bullet in his shoulder and the boat’s owner dead. He failed on his first mission in civilian life, and Silent Running opens with him reeling from it.

Marvik’s not sure what lies ahead for him until a former Royal Marine comrade, Shaun Strathen, enlists his help to find a missing computer scientist and a former girlfriend of Marvik’s goes missing after visiting him in his remote Isle of Wight cottage. Marvik finds himself attached to the UK's newly formed and covert National Intelligence Marine Squad (NIMS) led by Detective Chief Superintendent Crowder. Marvik's skills, background, experiences all dictate his actions but essentially, like DI Andy Horton he is engaged on investigations. In Marvik's case covert ones, and as he is not a police officer he can act outside the law.

Inspector Ryga Mysteries by Pauline RowsonThen there is my 1950s set detective series with Inspector Ryga. Again I needed to understand what makes Ryga tick before I launched him on an investigation. His character needed to be formed and understood. I didn't want a hero in the traditional sense and I also needed to bring in my trademark, or brand- the sea. I therefore chose to make Ryga an ex-merchant seaman whose ship was raided by the Germans and he ended up spending four years in a German prisoner-of-war camp.  His experience at sea, and as a  prisoner-of-war, has made him unique in his approach to solving coastal  based  crimes.  He's observant, analytical and reflective.  He's witnessed compassion, cruelty,  cowardice and heroism, mental breakdown and despair. He’s made a promise to himself that  whatever happens after the war he’ll keep an open mind and never judge.

I use spider grams to create the characters involved in the novel.

I draw a circle and put each character in the centre of that circle and then I throw out lines and ask a series of ‘open’ questions about each of them. For example if the victim I'll ask myself -who is he? How did he get where he is? Why would someone want to kill him? Who killed him? How was he killed? What’s his background, family, education, experience? What’s his occupation? How old is he? Where does he live? What’s his personality? What does he look like? What has shaped him? How are the victim’s family, friends and others going to react? How do they see this character?

At this stage I have hardly any answers to these questions but they will come to me as I write the novel. In particular once I start putting dialogue into their mouths and have them walking around and interacting with people. I add to my notes and my storyboard/plotline as the characters’ actions start to drive the plot. So does that make me character driven? Confusing isn't it? Added to this is the fact that I never outline the entire plot before writing the novel because I have no idea what happened, who did it, how and why? And I might find that as I write, DI Andy Horton or Art Marvik will discover something about themselves, or their past, and make a decision that will affect the plot and change its direction.

To me the surprises, twists and turns spring from the characters' motivations and as I write I find ideas occurring to me that I hadn’t previously considered.

I sometimes also discover that someone I thought was going to be a minor character turns out to be much more interesting while a major character can become boring and sometimes unnecessary, if that happens then I cut him or her out.

As I write I ask myself what will this character do in this situation. What will he/she do next? I continually ask questions about each character and answer them as the novel progresses. I shape and reshape. I put my characters in difficult or unusual situations, and as I do the story unfolds and the tension builds.

So answering the question what comes first character or plot? For me it is the character although I am toying with plot ideas.

And answering the question are my crime novels plot driven or character driven? I'll leave you to decide when reading them.

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JANUARY 6TH, 2021 @ 6:00:50 GMT

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