Sunday, August 27, 2006

Plot and character

In the comments to yesterday's post, Danielle asked a great question (as she so often does) about plot-driven vs. character-driven novels. I realize, now that I think about those terms, that the distinction is quite fuzzy. When I say "plot-driven," I tend to think of action stories, and the book that comes immediately to mind is The Da Vinci Code. And when I say "character-driven," I'm talking about books that go into a character's mind or multiple characters' minds in depth and focus on portraying a person or people in a complex way. I think, for example, of Proust. But this shows my biases, of course, because my example of a plot-driven novel is generally not considered great literature (okay, that's an understatement), and Proust is. Danielle also names Dumas as an example of a writer focused on plot, someone who's made the canon of western literature, sort of, but he also has a reputation as a super-fast writer who's fun but not so serious.

I think Danielle is right to question the distinction between these two types of novels because although the distinction may wind up being useful, it has a lot of problems. Plot and character always go together, of course, or you don't have a novel. Even if we're talking about Clarissa, which much be the ultimate character-driven novel, it has plot, even if it consists of only three events. In 1,500 pages. In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, if you prefer) has plot, even if it doesn't follow any traditional story line (or does it? I don't know yet). Still, I'm reading along right now in Swann's Way and I want to know what happens to Swann and Odette. And plot-driven novels have characters, or there would be no plot to begin with, and if they are good novels, they'll have interesting characters.

But there are lots of novels that don't immediately strike me as one or the other. I just finished The Island of Dr. Moreau, which on first thought seems to me to be plot-driven, but then I start to think that the narrator in that novel is awfully interesting, and maybe it's his responses to the plot that are at the heart of the novel? I suppose many, many novels work well because of the way they connect plot and character -- the way that the plot comes out of the characters themselves, and then the characters remain interesting because of the ways they react to the plot. They don't necessarily emphasize one over the other; rather, they integrate the two. And many, many novels emphasize one or the other to a degree, but not so much that a reader could clearly say this one is plot-driven and that one character-driven. Ultimately, I see the terms as useful for making very rough and quick distinctions, sort of like the way we use genre designations that work to a certain extent but when you look at them closely they begin to break down. This novel is "chick-lit," that one is "speculative fiction," this one is a "historical novel," that one a "romance," this is "plot-driven," that is "character-driven." The terms are a good starting place but not a good ending one.

The thing that interests me most is the question of bias I started out with. Am I showing my bias toward character-driven fiction when I name examples of plot-driven novels that people tend not to take seriously, such as The Da Vinci Code? What are some great plot-driven novels? Or would you rather not use the label at all? Do the terms have any usefulness?