Whenever I hear diverse opinions on this subject, I think of James Bond. I readily admit to never having read Ian Fleming and have no plans to add spy thrillers to my library. But when I consider Bond, James Bond, based on his character, what comes to mind is a hero who is adept at surviving narrow escapes, thinks on his feet or while dangling from a flaming helicopter, uses the latest technological gadgets, is comfortable in a tuxedo gambling for high stakes in a posh casino, and enjoys causing things (planes, buildings, islands) to explode. In the end, he always wins and he always gets the girl. (He doesn’t want to keep the girl, however, because marriage and fatherhood don’t fit his profile, i.e., commitment is boring.)
If I am entertained by the latest story (and I’m not saying I am) involving yet another master villain with a nefarious plot, it isn’t because I expect to learn how James Bond feels or even what he thinks. I’ll watch (or read) because I want to see how he’ll manage to escape after retrieving the diagrams/code/flash drive, thereby thwarting the evil plans of the bad guys. The forward thrust of the story is based on action.
It’s not that Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan could replace James Bond (different alma maters for starters), but it’s not Bond’s characteristics that drive the story. It’s events run amok (martial arts experts, car chases, laser beams) while the bomb keeps ticking that drive your interest in the story. You hold your breath until he escapes, not to see if he’ll finally tell Moneypenny he’s realized his repressed misogyny is a dead end and he truly loves her.
James Bond doesn’t ever change, not even his Etonian accent or his martini. Neither does Harry Potter or Stephanie Plum. They don’t have to evolve to deliver a satisfying story. We find them appealing as individuals who fit into their particular story the way no one else would, but it’s the external elements or pressures that most hold our attention.
Personally I get more reader satisfaction from stories where the heros/heroines have to learn something about themselves. Exciting action during their journeys to self-discovery is a bonus. Dorothy Gale endures lots of hardships and (mis)adventures to figure out “there’s no place like home.” We care about her because she didn’t realize she always had the power to go back home, not because she gets to wear the ruby slippers. You can add all the flying monkeys and talking trees you want, but the story would never work if Dorothy didn’t change by the end.
Take another look at your novel or concept. Does your protagonist have to learn something by the end of the story? It might be fair to say your character is more important than the action. If your character stays the same throughout as events unfold, then perhaps the plot takes precedence.
It’s true that you can’t have character without plot, and vice versa, but it helps to be able to discern between literary and commercial. This is one way to attempt it.
Cynthia J. Stone
Look for Mason’s Daughter, available on Amazon in July 2012