Every morning after an hour of quiet time with the Lord, my husband and I will work out in our home gym—it’s a fancy name for that portion of our garage that houses an elliptical, treadmill, and some free weights. I admit I need a distraction while running on the treadmill or doing squats because I get easily bored. For this reason, we’ve streamed several different television series over the years, both character-driven and plot-driven.
You’ve most likely heard the great debate between the two. From the moment I stepped into my first writer’s conference, this has been a topic worth exploring. I would love to say all my novels have a healthy balance of the two, but I’d then have to confess and repent. I lean heavy on character-driven stories. I think it’s because my heart is to encourage believers (and non-believers) of the hope available in the midst of tragedy through the love of Christ, and because of that love, we can then encourage others. This isn’t possible in fiction or life without character growth.
But who doesn’t love a strong plot? Without it, the story meanders along with lots of internal monologue and touchy-feely conversations through which the reader can see that change is happening. Yawn.
I love well-written character-driven stories, but I also enjoy plot-driven novels, as well. I picked up my first Kinsey Millhone book (A is for Alibi) by Sue Grafton at a library when I was pregnant with my daughter. And I was hooked. A voracious reader, with no budget to purchase books, I scoured libraries for more. I remember seeing Ms. Grafton on a talk show lamenting the decision to write this series because she was then committed to one for each letter of the alphabet. Sadly, she passed away before she could write the final Z book, so there are only twenty-five.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, Kinsey Millhone is a former police officer in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California, which Grafton based off Santa Barbara. After leaving the force, Kinsey became a private detective. Every book in the series is a new case. Although the character of Kinsey is interesting, she did not change throughout the series. Definitely what I would consider a plot-driven novel. The challenge for Ms. Grafton was to keep the books timely since Kinsey didn’t age throughout the three-plus decades they were written. In 1982, there was no such thing as a cell phone. By 2017 (when Grafton passed away) no one used landlines anymore. And let’s not even get started on the growth of computer technology throughout those years. Like I said, challenging.
When my husband and I are driving long distances, we like to listen to audiobooks we pick up through our library app. Call us cheap, but it’s how we roll. In our search for the perfect driving novel, we discovered the Andy Carpenter Series written by David Rosenfelt. This is another plot-driven series with a reluctant attorney-at-law in the lead role. Andy inherited millions from his father and claims to be retired, but clients continually drop into his lap. Of course, they’re always innocent, and he spends the required pages to solve the murder so he can get them off.
Throughout the twenty-five books (same number as Grafton’s series) he starred in, he did not experience internal growth. He got married and adopted a boy that was orphaned but is still the same from book one to book twenty-five. One of the reasons I love this series is because of the narrator, Grover Garland. He’s fantastic. I don’t think I’d enjoy the books so much otherwise. In fact, David Rosenfelt began another series (K-Team) with a different audiobook narrator, and it didn’t hold our attention.
I have yet to read a multi-book series in which there is great internal growth. Maybe this is why most fiction series marketed for women are made up of several books with different lead roles. I would be bored starring any of my characters for more than one novel. But if I wrote mysteries in which the plot was the driving force, that would be another thing entirely. However, I don’t see that as my calling. Although I enjoy a good thriller, I’m more geared toward the internal growth of people than the action. A little of both would be best. This is one reason I intend to switch from women’s contemporary fiction to romantic suspense once my Bedford County Series is completed.
So, let me circle back to the beginning of this article. While most men (including my husband) prefer to watch television shows and movies teeming with plot-driven action and adventure (right now, we’re watching NCIS for the second time around), Chris has fallen prey to the attraction of good character-driven family drama. There have been a few that we’ve especially enjoyed such as Everwood and Brothers & Sisters. These shows allow the viewer to see character growth over time—four seasons for Everwood and five for Brothers & Sisters. And my favorite, Alias, which had both action and heart.
But just like books have changed with the times, so have television series. I hope I’m not dating myself by admitting I grew up watching The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, each of which aired for nine years. It’s hard to not see character development when we literally watch them grow up on the air. It was wholesome family television at its best.
But whether you’re a fan of mysteries, thrillers, action/adventure, romance, contemporary, or historical fiction, there is something for everyone. The age-old debate of plot versus character will continue long past the day I’m dancing with Jesus. However, my desire is to continually learn the craft, entertain my readers, and inspire hope in a dark world. What more could a writer ask?
Susan K. Beatty
Having Fun with Names and Careers
Choosing characters’ names and their jobs is one of the delightful parts of beginning a new book.
I don’t have much of a rhyme or reason for choosing names. I find a name I like, then bingo. But where do I find them? You know the end of each movie or TV program with their lists and lists of the people who contributed? I love scouring the names, sometimes for the unique, sometimes for the ordinary. Switching first and last names around is like a game. The only thing is I sometimes forget to jot down my ideas, and with a brain like a sieve, I often lose those ideas forever.
Sometimes I do have a plan. Like when I have a nationality in mind for the character, so I go through name lists on the internet. That’s how I decided on the name Fiona for my main character in The Fragrance of Violets. I wanted Irish. Then I came across Maeve for her mother. That name has always tickled my fancy.
As for the male main character, a father figure, Nason has been a character’s name I’ve had stashed in the back of my mind for many years. Nason was the last name of an uncle by marriage, a race car driver, and I always thought it would be cool as a first name. Too bad Nason in the story isn’t always as cool.
Creating the characters’ jobs is a little trickier. The author wants to find something that meets the skills of the character (unless you want the mismatch of skills and job to be a part of the story), plus it should be a little interesting. Most of all, the author needs to know something of how that profession works. Or at least be able to research and/or find someone in that line of work to clue you in.
Choosing Fiona’s job as a hotel sales and catering manager was perfect because I’d already determined Fiona and Nason would run into each other as part of her job. Nason’s wife has chosen Fiona’s resort as the site for their son’s wedding, and Fiona gets assigned to the planning team. Having a complicated past and that chance encounter fuels the story.
For thirty-five years, I participated in a ministry hosting conferences, working with many employees of hotels and convention centers. Getting to know the inner workings of sales and catering staff through those experiences provided a backdrop for Fiona.
Assigning Nason a career was a little more problematic, and I followed a winding road. I wanted Nason to be a professional. My first choice was to have him be a headhunter, you know a job recruiter. The job had to provide opportunity for Nason to be ruthless at times (before he becomes a Christian).
There was only one problem. It wasn’t working, and I have to thank my critique group for pointing it out. I didn’t know enough about the realities of the profession to make it believable even though I’d done online research. I tried to connect with someone in the field, but to no avail.
So, what to do? Choose a career of one of my friends. I have a great, long-time friend who is an attorney, and if she was willing to help, Nason would become an attorney.
Fortunately for me, she was eager to help, sacrificing her time to explain how law firms work, reading and critiquing scenes, and suggesting new ideas.
Too bad I hadn’t thought of this in the beginning because I was already one-third to halfway through, and changing his job meant changing several plot points. But it was totally worth it. Making Nason an attorney strengthened the story.
I’m working on another novel that includes a character who works at the same hotel and FBI agents. Fortunately, I have a friend who is an agent. But I’m writing this novel with a little fear and trepidation. Adding the FBI and suspense is daunting.
But that’s another article.
Now, I can’t wait for you to read The Fragrance of Violets and let me know if the sales and catering manager and the attorney come together for you.
The Fragrance of Violets, book 2 in my Faces of Courage series, releases May 17 and is available for pre-order now at a special low price and comes with a gift offer. https://www.celebratelitpublishing.com/posts/book/the-fragrance-of-violets/