During the Q&A session for the “Thrilling Me Softly” panel at Virginia Festival of the Book last week, the dreaded question came up almost immediately: Which is more important–plot or character? What ensued reminded me of debates between seasoned flight instructors: when you’re coming in to land, which is more important, power or pitch? (Turns out, it’s a balance, and you have to manage both well, especially if the engine quits.)
“Plot or character?” is a question in the league of “When did you stop beating your spouse?” In other words, there’s no good answer.
The members of the panel gave it a try, though it ended up being three to one, character to plot. One author, who shall remain nameless, disdained the notion that characters take over. “My characters do exactly what I tell them to do,” he declared, and he believed an intricate, well-wrought plot is more important. One panelist countered by saying she gets an idea for the plot, but she has to have the characters fleshed-out before she can bring them together.
I looked over several of the plot proponent’s titles at the book fair and scanned some pages of each. They are well-executed thrillers, with, indeed, intricate, well-wrought plots. Though I didn’t read much of each book, I could see his main character, however, was the stereotype of an unyielding federal law enforcement officer and probably not very complex.
I’m not dissing thrillers. I read a lot of them because they’re great escapist fun, though they seemed to be of a distinct right-wing bent. That alone means I’ve usually forgotten them a day later. A book or short story speaks to me and stays with me if there are multi-layered characters, people I can “see” on the street or in my life. I’m not a big Hemingway fan, but the old man from The Old Man and the Sea has stayed with me for forty years. The plot of a Vince Flynn pot-boiler–nope, can’t remember a thing.
The “thrillers” I have liked are those by John Le Carre or Alan Furst, where the world of espionage is populated by rich, realistic characters you come to know and worry about, and they are involved in a convoluted plot with multiple threads to be tied up at the end. They combine the best aspects of plot and character and are more literary than genre works.
I think, like a well-executed landing, a memorable work of fiction has the perfect balance of character and plot. Weigh in–what do you think? Plot? Character? Or both?