Which is more important when you read — the actual story or the characters? I’ve read books with great plots, but two-dimensional characters, and I’ve read multi-layered characters stuck in clunky stories, and I’m sure you have, too. So which would you rather focus on, if you couldn’t have both?
I think they’re of equal weight–I don’t prefer one over the other. That said, I do think the strength of one can make up for the weaknesses of another, or at least help to make a more enjoyable read if the book can’t be entirely redeemed. One of my tell-tale signs of a bad writing–characterization specifically–is when I can’t remember who is who in a book. I’ve been such a bookworm my whole life with kick-ass reading comprehension and grades in English that it’s very rare, so much so that I can remember almost every time it’s happened–American Rust, Fountainhead, and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant about sum it up (should be noted that I also dislike the plots and writing styles of all three of those books in general anyway). I think it also ties into a writing rule that I think holds up 99% of the time–if the reader misunderstands something or struggles with something, it’s the writer’s fault. It’s the writer’s job to be a clear and effective storyteller, and granted I’ve seen exceptions where people impressively misinterpret things or miss huge details in a book, but I generally find it to be true.
Now, sometimes I hate the characters in a book just because they’re terrible people but still like the book itself. Wuthering Heights is the perfect example–that damn couple is one of the worst in literature, so far in my reading experience only being beaten out by Christian and Ana in 50 Shades of Grey, but they’re written well and fleshed out and you understand why they’re terrible. In fact, them being terrible is the whole plot.
Speaking of 50 Shades, that’s a good example of a book where the characters are fleshed out but horrible and the plot is generic and weak yet I still want to know what happens yet I still hate it. I’ve been toying around with the idea of doing a post all about what I’ve learned about myself through reading 50 Shades, which is basically a long list of things I hate and why.
And then there’s Twilight. Now, on its most basic level, I like the plot of Twilight. I’m just fine with teenage vampire romance, but the writing is bad and things start to fall apart when Stephenie Meyer starts contradicting her own pseudoscience. Authors make shit up all the time, but you can’t make shit up for the sake of fitting something into your plot when it just doesn’t make sense. You don’t get to say vampires are physically dead except for the fact that they somehow can impregnate women. It doesn’t make sense. Please consult Anne Rice for lessons on what happens to vampire dick. Spoiler alert: forever limp. Anyway, Twilight did have some characters I truly enjoyed, mostly minor ones. Bella’s dad, Charlie, and Edward’s sister Alice were both fantastic, and it’s been argued by Twilight haters that the reason they’re so good is because they were minor characters, meaning their lack of screen time meant Meyer didn’t have an opportunity to ruin them. They weren’t enough to save the series, but they’re certainly good.
And then there’s the fact that sometimes, so much hinges on character that they are the plot. You can have a whole hell of a lot of not much happen, but if your characters are interesting and the reader relates to them and cares about them, you can get away with plot issues. Hell, not all writing is even traditionally plot-centered anymore–James Joyce’s short fiction was much more character-focused, and usually the “what happens next” bit we love as readers involves what happens to the characters, not so much what the next event is, and in that sense, plot and characters can become delightfully tightly intertwined.