I’ve just finished reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I recall being annoyed at how hard it was to get into the book – it only started getting interesting (to me at least) in chapter five. But, it turned out to be a complex and thought provoking story.

I kept reading – even when I really didn’t want to – because I enjoyed the writing style, and I found the premise intriguing. I’ll have to read the book again at some point to appreciate the start of the book properly.

I’d describe it as a plot driven book. Yes, I found the characters interesting, but it wasn’t really about them. It was about the situation. From page one I wanted to know how the world had arrived at the situation it was in, and as the story continued I started to care about how the characters reacted to this situation, and if they were going to work towards changing it.

From the perspective of someone who likes to write, it did make me wonder why. Why did PKD make me read five chapters of sloooow before things started to get properly interesting? After all, a lot of advice out there says you have to ‘hook the reader’, or ‘start with a bang’. Man in the High Castle had exactly the same level of style and tension throughout, even the action points were kept on quite a low burn, yet by the last third of the book I couldn’t put the book down. The plot had reeled me in.

Written to be reread?

Film site, Indie Tips defines plot driven stories as one in which:

“the circumstances are beyond the control of the characters.”

The article uses The Lord of the Rings as an example of this, and I had the same experience with the start of Fellowship. It was too slow. Why should I care that Bilbo is some weird old Hobbit that is rumoured to have a stash of gold? Or that he’s 111? (Granted, it may have helped if I’d read The Hobbit first). When I reread the book, I loved the opening chapters because they had meaning to me by then. I guess plot driven books are written to be reread.

I can see that one potential pitfall of plot driven stories is that characters become reactive and two-dimensional, an afterthought. I didn’t connect with the characters in Man in the High Castle in the way I did with the characters in The Lord of the Rings (knowing how much work Tolkien put into character backstories that’s not surprising).

I love my characters. I’ve spent just as much (if not more) time writing backstories for them, thinking about how they’d react to each situation and making them address their weaknesses, as I have spent on developing the plot.

Science fiction and fantasy series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games show that plot driven books can also be character driven. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact, I think the best books combine elements of both. I want complex characters that I care about and a big, scary plot. I want to see how they’ll react to circumstances beyond their control.

That’s what stories are all about.