Booking Through Thursday: Plot or Characters?

I don’t often participate in bookish memes anymore, but this week’s question over at Booking Through Thursday sent me sliding down a thought spiral, so I thought I’d post a bit about my conclusions.  Here’s this week’s question:

Which is more important when you read — the actual story or the characters? I’ve read books with great plots, but two-dimensional characters, and I’ve read multi-layered characters stuck in clunky stories, and I’m sure you have, too. So which would you rather focus on, if you couldn’t have both?”

I’ve said before that I’m largely interested in language and character, followed by setting, with plot or action as probably the lowest aspect in the hierarchy of what I’m looking for when I read.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  all these aspects are important, and if an author lets any one of them languish, it can ruin an otherwise perfectly enjoyable book.  But in general, I’m not as plot-centric a reader as manyI know.

So it’s probably rather easy to guess which aspect – plot or characters – I would rather focus on if, as the question stipulates, I couldn’t have both.  I’d choose the characters most every time.

An analogous situation that feels appropriate for me:  Would you rather attend a party with wonderful food, excellent atmosphere, great music and enjoyable entertainments but at which all the other guests are deeply unpleasant people? Everything about the setting of the party and the action of the evening is great, but your choices for conversation or dance partners are self-centered jerks, boors who spend more time staring into the screen of their phone than actually looking you in the eye, drunken louts who shout and spill things on your nicest outfit, people gossiping in a very rude fashion about other guests and some guy who crashed the party hoping to round up more rubes for his latest pyramid scheme.  I’ve got to say that no matter how beautiful the decorations or how divine the canapés, I’m not going to enjoy myself at this theoretical party.

On the other hand, let’s say the host has had a few setbacks setting up this soirée.   His sister offered to whip up the food, and she’s prone to over-salting everything.  The sound system cuts out, the air conditioning dies (on a balmy summer night,) and the only entertainment is an old game of Monopoly with half the pieces missing.  But your fellow party-goers are awesome people.  They’re easy-going about the party’s failures, they’re funny, articulate and know how to actually listen, as opposed to just talk.  You make the best of the evening and have a lot of fun despite the less-than-eventful situation, because you’re in great company.

I would much rather find myself at the second hypothetical party, hanging out with awesome characters, than suffer through the first party, miserably stuffing my face with delicious hors d’oevres while surrounded by terrible characters.  Great characters can make a lousy party, er, plot worthwhile, whereas no amount of exciting plot can distract me from flat, boring characters.


P.S.  I hate parties.  I am not a party girl.  Nope nope nope.


6 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday: Plot or Characters?

  1. I have a theory about that. I think that as we read we progress in what we pay attention to. When we start reading, everyone is reading for plot. When I go back to some of my favorite stories from when I was a kid, I find that many of them have characters who are wooden or undeveloped. As a kid, I didn’t notice. I was wondering what would happen next. Then I think as we get a little older, the characters become important. I remember in high school I hated Gone with the Wind because I disliked Scarlet so much. I think some of us get stuck in different stages, but others begin to appreciate writing style, imagery, inventive narrative, and so on. When I go back to the books I loved in high school, I realize now that some of them are not well written, and I can’t stand them. On the other hand, I read GWTW again several years ago and realized it was an excellent historical novel. Liking characters didn’t matter as much to me anymore.

    • Whatmeread: Your theory makes a lot of sense. I’m thinking back over my favorites from childhood, teens, and earlier in my adulthood, and I definitely can see a similar progression.

      I always dread the idea of re-reading a favorite from many years ago, because my previous attempts have ruined some books for me. This progression of attention probably has a lot to do with why.

      • Yes, but sometimes you can reread books you disliked and find they are good after all. I know what you mean about the favorites, though. Gosh, most of the books I loved as a teenager are awful! Except for Mary Stewart.

  2. Coincidentally, my husband and I were talking about this on our walk last night. He’s definitely a plot guy, which is the role he takes in our writing too. Me? Hmm… It’s so hard to tease out character and plot because, for me anyway, the characters should be the ones driving the plot. Cool characters doing nothing is kinda boring–you could totally win me over at a party with tasty nibblies. 😉


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