Literary or Commercial? Character or Plot-driven?

>At conferences, I would always hear authors, agents, and editors talk about ‘character-driven’ versus ‘plot-driven’ stories. Character-driven are the stories where the character dictates the action, and the reader cares more about what happens to the character than what happens in general. More often than not, they are the stories that get labeled as ‘literary’.

Plot-driven, on the other hand, often labeled ‘commercial’, are fast-moving. The plot, not the characters, dictate the action. Readers tend to care more about what is happening, than what is happening to a specific character.

This whole categorization between literary/commercial, character/plot-driven used to bother me because as I would sit and listen, I’d always come to the same conclusion – I am more of a plot-driven writer, and that seemed to be wrong. Editors were always saying they wanted literary, character-driven stories, not plot-driven, commercial stories. I felt like I was somehow unworthy of publication.

When I paid a published author for a critique of one of my manuscripts several years ago, she drove the point home by saying: “This is too plot-driven and your characters under-developed; if your goal is commercial fiction, this is ready, but if you want to be published in any of the big NY houses, you have a lot of work to do.” She went on to separate out her comments, based on whether I wanted to be a commercial or a literary author (the literary suggestions being the more lengthy of the two sections). My reaction was, “ugh, I must really suck if she thinks it’s commercial” and I abandoned the story.

As I sit down now to begin revising that novel after some five years, I see what she was saying. I do agree with 99% of what she said (after all back then I was still quite the newbie writer) but I also think she missed the boat on the whole commercial vs literary separation.

First of all, who cares if it’s commercial? That stuff sells; being commercial is not a bad thing. We all like to read a light book once in awhile, a quick read, especially after slogging through a heavy literary novel.

But more importantly, who says a book must be one or the other? I think you can have a literary AND commercial book. The suggestions she made based on whether I wanted to go the commercial or literary route, when combined, would make a brilliant book.

Too often people equate ‘literary’ with ‘quiet’ and ‘internal’, downplaying the plot – they think you have to be writing in a first person narrative with lots of internal dialogue for it to be good, worthy stuff .

It doesn’t.

Plot is not a dirty word. I love plot. I love having things happen on the sidelines, seemingly unrelated to the story, and then having all the strands meet in one big catastrophic collision. I love planting seeds that sit quietly growing underneath the surface or that tumble gently along between scenes, unnoticed, until BAM! They pop into the picture, sending things stumbling out of control. What better way to orchestrate these sideline events or plant these seeds than through the development of your characters? I love creating characters who make choices that send everything into a tailspin – choices you know as the reader, were wrong, but you also know were the only choice that character could have made.

In my opinion, that’s literary AND commercial. That’s what I like to read, and that’s want I want to strive for in my writing. So the next time I hear someone ask “literary or commercial? Character or plot-driven?” I think I’ll just smile and say, “Yes, please.”

3 Responses to Literary or Commercial? Character or Plot-driven?

  1. Laura Ellen 03/26/2009 at 08:05 #

    >Your plots are very compelling, Libby!
    Yes, Diane, knowing what we want to write is the easy part – it’s the execution that sucks!

  2. Elizabeth Mosier 03/25/2009 at 15:53 #

    >I aspire to compelling plot, Laura!

  3. Diane T 03/25/2009 at 13:08 #

    >I totally agree! The books I love to reread over and over are not just character-driven and not just plot-driven–they have some of both. I think the key is to create a plot that allows your character scope to act and change. If everything just happens to your character, and they don’t rise to meet the challenge, then you’re just reading to find out what happens next. And while I do enjoy the “inner journeys” of those more “literary” or character-driven books, they’re not usually the type I want to revisit. I love the feeling of wanting to know what happens next.

    Now that we know what kind of books we should be writing, it will easier now, right? {haha}

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