April 2022 Featured Article

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?

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