Friday, March 10, 2006

Plot or character?

This morning I was listening to Desert Island Discs where the castaway was Jack Higgins. I hadn’t realised that his book, The Eagle Has Landed, which was a worldwide number one bestseller and has sold over 50 million copies, was his twenty-seventh book. The classic example of an overnight success!!

So what made the twenty-seventh book different from previous books by a mid-list thriller writer? Higgins said the catalyst for change was a meeting with one of his old teachers. Up until then, Higgins had always plotted out his thrillers in minute detail and had made his characters act out their parts as if they were actors in a stage play. Higgins’ old teacher said that was precisely the problem with thrillers. He reminded Higgins that life doesn’t work that way, that people don’t function according to a pre-ordained script. He said that, in real life, *people* write the script.

It seems to have been a moment of revelation for Higgins. He started to think much more about his characters, their motivation, and the effects of external factors on them. He said that the next book he wrote was so different and so much better than his previous ones that his agent told him he ought to take a new pseudonym. That’s when Jack Higgins was born.

It’s an interesting sidelight on character-driven versus plot-driven books. There are some quite famous authors who recommend plotting every twist and turn of a book in minute detail, before putting a single word on the page. There are others who have only a vague idea of where their story is going when they start to write, but who understand every aspect of their characters, right down to how they vote and the filling they put in their sandwiches. Of course, those are the ends of the spectrum; writers can be anywhere in between, working with a combination of character and plot. But, listening to Higgins, I found myself wondering: does the mostly plot-driven approach came more naturally to male authors and the mostly character-driven one to female authors? Or is it more a function of the genre, with thrillers being plot-driven and romances being character-driven?

I’ll put my cards on the table. I rarely have more than a sketchy idea of my plot when I start writing, though I do know my characters. It can make for a truly scary ride. Sometimes I get totally stuck. I meet plot chasms and I can’t see how to get across them. But I’ve found that if I leave it to the characters and my subconscious, between us we usually find a way. I’m pretty sure that, if I plotted it all out from the start, my characters could become flat and lifeless. I know I couldn’t write the way Higgins originally did. I like my characters to be able to surprise me.



Anonymous said...


Like you I have never written a book "plot-first". I usually know how it's going to end but the journey is a magical mystery tour! I love it when characters really come to life and take charge of the story, it makes a writers life so much easier -I have a minor character in my latest wip who is insisting I give him the next book!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm a plotter. My outlines could sell as novelettes. :-) If I didn't plot in advance, I'd get hopelessly lost in all the subplots and twists, and the historical background. And it doesn't get easier by the fact that three of my NiPs are connected by some shared characters and different angles to present an extremely messed up historical time.

I also write character biographies - not following any sheets, but freewriting, and they come up with some pretty interesting stuff most of the time.