Plot versus Character? Character wins every time. I attended a panel at ThrillerFest on Friday titled, “Scalpel, Please: How Do you Find the Heart of Your Story?” The panel master was D.P. Lyle, MD, and the panelists consists of a diverse group of thriller writers: Brandt Dodson, Vladimir Lange, Michael Palmer, Stefanie Pintoff and Jonathan Hayes, and every one of them said that in the contest (if there is one) of “plot” versus “character,” “character” wins every time. As Pintoff said: “The books that stick with me are those where the characters are really memorable.”
I thought this was interesting, particularly at a conference when books are described in terms of “what if”: What if there’s this guy, and his doorbell rings, and when he opens his front door, no one’s there, only a note taped to the railing that says…
But I agree. While all of us can appreciate a clever plot and might often say, “Gosh, why didn’t I think of that?!” it’s compelling characters that keep us reading — relatable, interesting characters who pull us into that story and hold us there. As Pintoff said, I think about all the books that I liked, or didn’t like, and the reason has more to do with how closely I identified with, or understood, the protagonist than with plot or the quality of the writing. Strong characters can save those last two — and often have.
Even with my own book, Baby Grand, during the revision process, my agent kept saying: “Delve deeper. Tell me more about this character. Why does she say this? Why does he do that?”
And I remember thinking, Okay, but does it really matter? I mean, this is a thriller, after all. Shouldn’t I be focusing on suspense and action and pace? But then I added more character layers, more depth, more backstory, and, lo and behold, the book got better. A lot better.