Character or Plot-driven novels - which could be the bestseller?

By Anthony S. Policastro

Ever wonder what agents and publishers are looking for as the next bestseller? Is it a plot or character-driven novel? Seems to me the market is dominated by character-driven, women-oriented books these days. Just look at the bestseller lists.

I recently ran across Literary Agent Andrew Zack's blog post where he wrote that one New York publishing house editor told him, "...she hates 'high-concept' thrillers, and for her a good thriller is 'character-driven' and 'involves a puzzle that the reader can try and figure out, along with the main character.'" He went on to say he would start looking for novels written with this plot type.

When I mentioned this concept to my wife she said, "Aren't all books character-driven?" since without characters you don't have a story. The question is what is really meant by the difference?

I see Michael Crichton's characters very limited in scope - his emphasis is on the concept and the technology - the characters are just there as props to move the story along. This is what I call a plot-driven book.

Now Memoirs of a Geisha is very much about the characters and what happens to them in a series of various circumstances. You feel and experience what the character feels and experiences and you see the transformation of the character into one form or another. This is a character-driven novel. What wows the reader determines the type of novel.

I picked up Nicholas Sparks' Dear John and almost half way through not a lot of exciting things have happened. A young man home on leave from Iraq meets a college girl and a romance starts. The things they do (the plot) are pretty average, pretty common place, but I'm getting a whole lot on who these people are and what they want and what I think they will do. This is character-driven.

I read Stephen Coonts Saucer about a young man working for an oil company in the desert who uncovers an alien flying saucer. When government troops invade, he gets into the saucer with a young female air force pilot and they manage to fly away with the saucer. You get a little bit about their characters, but the book is mostly a cat and mouse chase to keep the saucer out of government hands and to give the technology to all of mankind. Here the reader wants to know what happens next, will they get away? will they fail? This is a plot-driven novel. I can't quite remember anything about the characters and I didn't walk away with any instant revelations about life or the human condition. And he didn't even have a romance between the two main characters - a bit disappointing.

One thing is for certain - what captures my interest in any book is the writing. Golden's writing in Geisha is addictive; I read the first page and couldn't put it down. Coonts' writing is ok, but there were some parts where he used what I assumed were California clich├ęs and I was totally clueless. Crichton's writing is ok also, but I read his work for the concepts and technology rather than a visceral revelation about humanity.

Where do you think the publishing gems are today? In plot or character-driven novels?

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  1. Smart post. I love writing (and reading) character stuff - but I also enjoy reading works focused around a fast-paced plot. But from your post I notice that the "male" novel might be more focused on plot & the "female" novel more character driven (with a good plot, of course)... ? Is there a gender issue here?

  2. Hi Deanna,
    It could be a gender issue. Take a look at Andrew Zack's (blog) explanation of the issue at http://zackcompany.blogspot.com/2007/07/where-mens-fiction-went.html

  3. I think the issue is more right brain vs. left brain. Those who need the mood and characters tend to be left brain, while a driving plot interests a linear mind.

    When I've had people read my work, the computer programmers and techies love it, while my more artistic types don't feel anything for the "character".

    I just want to find a right brain agent to take it on.