I love characters. Interesting and three dimensional (that is, “real seeming”) characters are what keep me coming back to my favorite writers, my favorite stories and even my favorite movies and TV shows.
I also love a well-plotted, exciting story with twists and turns that surprise me.
When the two things come together, I am in entertainment heaven. In my own reading, watching and writing, this is what I long for. But if I can only have one, I prefer to have character-driven fiction, rather than plot-driven writing.
One of the most extreme examples of plot-driven fiction I can think of in recent years, is the Left Behind series. After the first book, the characters exist basically only to serve the plot. What was important to the writers and publishers was not the fictional people in the story, but rather the content of “what happened” in the story. You almost got the sense than any old people would have done as characters in that series – the same things would have happened no matter what, and the focus was not how it affected the characters.
On the extreme end of character-driven fiction, you have Lillian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who ___” series. These are about people and place far more than they are about the structure of a mystery. Another extremely entertaining, very character-driven writer, is Alexander McCall Smith. I’m a particular fan of his “No 1. Ladies Detective Agency” series.
Some of the best plot-driven fiction I have read was written by Alistair Maclean, a British thriller/espionage writer from the 1960s to the early 1980s. His stories are brilliant, replete with twists and turns. His characters mostly exist to serve the plots, but even so, they are consistent within those plots, and just real enough to get the job done.
Raymond Chandler was one of the best character-driven mystery writers of the twentieth century. Philip Marlowe is an enduring figure, the father or grandfather of practically all hard-boiled detectives since then. Three more recent character driven mystery wordsmiths all hail from the Boston area: the late Robert B Parker, the late Phillip Craig and William Tapply. These all capture the imagination with people. Tapply is perhaps the best plotter of them all with Craig being the weakest.
Dean Koontz is a man who seems to be able to write either plot-driven or character-driven fiction, and do both of them extremely well. I’m still looking for a book of his where he puts both together. The first in the Odd-Thomas series comes pretty close.
My own hope is to emulate Chandler (and Koontz, though less spooky) and leave my readers with memorable characters who also experience memorable things.
What your preference? Why?