This has been a long time coming. Last fall, I met author Matt Myklusch face-to-face. We talked a lot about his books and writing in general, but I wanted to do something for my blog. He agreed to do an interview. In December, I asked the questions. And now, I finally post the interview. I’m great with this book blogging stuff, aren’t I?
Matt Myklusch is the author of the Jack Blank Adventure Trilogy: The Accidental Hero, The Secret War, and The End of Infinity (all highly recommended). I enjoyed all three, along with the author’s podcast, where he interviews established and new authors about their books, writing, and other awesome stuff. In my interview, I focused mostly on writing craft, getting straight to the nuts and bolts of story crafting. I let the interview get pretty long, so I’ll post it in two parts; this half deals with character- and plot-driven stories and rewriting, while the next includes more scattered topics. I hope you enjoy it.
Thank you so much for doing this interview. You pitch your books as character-driven rather than plot-driven, and mention that on your podcast often, but what makes a story character-driven?
My pleasure. Great question. I am sure there is a textbook answer for it, but if so, I must confess I’ve not read it. So, I’ll just go with how I understand these terms (and probably use movies as examples, because that’s where my mind goes first).
In a character driven story, everything stems from the character’s needs and wants. Their motivation is the driving force for all the action. A plot-driven story is determined more by thesituation the character is in. Of course, these two things go hand in hand. We can’t have characters and not put them into difficult situations and interesting predicaments. Likewise, we can’t have a high concept premise or world with no characters there to populate it. Every story is going to have a bit of both. Some are just more heavily weighted to one side or the other.
I think movies like Die-Hard or Speed are more plot driven than anything else. Think about the movie Speed. “You’ve got a bomb on a bus. If the speedometer dips below 50 miles per hour… BOOM.” That’s it, really. That’s the heart of the movie. The situation. Keanu Reeve’s character, Jack Travern, is there to board the bus and stop the bad guy, but that story’s engine runs on its concept, not on its character. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people reading this had forgotten the character’s name. With Die-Hard, Bruce Willis’s character of John McClane is a little more developed with his broken family backstory, but over the course of five movies, McClane has also morphed from “tough guy, no-quit cop” to “indestructible superhuman.” So, they’ve kind of lost something there, character-wise. Each of those movies is more about what kind of meat grinder they are dropping Bruce Willis into this time.
Another plot-driven example can be found in Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible films. The first in the series dives right into the action with Cruise getting framed as a traitor, and he spends the rest of the film trying to clear his name. We never really get a sense of who he is beyond being the best spy in the business. He’s tough, smart, and cool. Again, over the course of four movies his character, Ethan Hunt, has been fleshed out more as a top spy who fell in love and tried to get out of the game, only to discover there is no “out.” That’s all good, and the character definitely has some more meat on his bones for all that, but I still think these stories are more about the situation the character is confronted with than the character himself.
On the other side of things, take a story like Good Will Hunting. Everything is derived from the character here. Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, is a young genius working as a janitor at MIT. He’s there each day cleaning up after students, and in some cases professors, that he is smarter than. Everything about this – Will’s untapped potential, his wasted talent – screams out to us as wrong. Will is a problem that must be fixed, and the story is about that. Nothing more. We follow Will as he meets people who want to help him, and the action that follows comes as a result of his reaction to their efforts. The obstacles here all come from him. His fierce independence, his desire to not be seen as a charity case who needs “fixing,” and his inability to get close to anyone except his tight-knit crew of friends from the wrong side of the tracks. Will he confront his demons and grow? That’s the real question here. It’s all about him.
So plot-driven stories might become formulaic as bigger and bigger problems are thrown at the character, while character-driven stories depend completely on the character’s choices. Is there a way to make sure you have plot or characters driving the story?
Anything can become formulaic. It’s our job as writers to make things different and interesting. I just think the plot-driven story focuses less on character and more on the problem the characters face. That’s fine, by the way… when it’s done well. I want to go on record as saying that I’m a big fan of Speed, Mission Impossible, and the first three Die-Hards. With those movies, I’ll accept less character development (not no character development) as the price paid for high-octane action and incredible situations made real.
But, you’re going to need both character and plot. In your first draft, what you end up with will probably depend on what your idea started with. If the spark of the idea came from the character, then the character will lead you. If it was more about the world you’re building or the story’s problem, you will likely have a plot-driven story.
My first draft of The Accidental Hero (Jack Blank # 1) was like that. The idea started with creating my own super-hero world, and the story was very plot-driven because I was mainly focused on showcasing the Imagine Nation, covering Jack’s backstory, and setting up the series. Originally, Jack was going through paces that served my plot, but didn’t ring true for who he was supposed to be. Getting inside Jack’s head and thinking about what he wanted, what he was afraid of, what his life experience thus far would have realistically built him up to be, etc… that forced me to redraw most of the action in the book’s second act. Staying true to actions and decisions Jack would have made shifted the balance between character-driven and plot-driven with this story.
You mentioned rewriting the book’s second act; do you ever find the rewrite difficult because you’re retreading ground, or does it always feel fresh? How do you keep from thinking it’s unsatisfactory since this is supposed to be the fix for the original problem?
I think if it doesn’t feel fresh, the changes you are making probably aren’t big enough. Or maybe they just aren’t the right changes. “Fresh” might not even be the best word to use, because after a year on any story I am usually so ready to be done with it that it’s hard for anything to feel fresh. But, I do have moments in rewrites where I feel like I’ve figured things out, and I get energized from that. When I feel like I can say “I’ve cracked this nut. Finally.” That allows me to take on the daunting task of unravelling work that is already done.
Sometimes the way to get there is to stick the manuscript in a drawer for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes. Wow, I’m using the word “fresh” a lot here. The point is, putting some distance between yourself and your story can help you see big, sweeping changes that solve multiple plot problems at once, as opposed to a lot of little tinkering that makes you wonder if you’re doing anything other than mucking things up.
The second half of the interview will appear tomorrow, featuring showing vs. telling, battle fatigue, and other nearly unrelated topics. I hope you enjoyed this and come back for more. Again, his books can be found here and his podcast here. Check them out.