Simple & Complex

Is Writing a Racket?

How to Write a Synopsis?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
I came across an observation in an article on writing technique which stuck in my mind. I hadn’t heard it before and it made me think about favourite stories and my own writing:

The best stories have simple plots with complex characters.”

I’ve been kicking around this concept, trying to decide if it’s true. We discussed keeping to a simple theme in an old thread:

But, how does a writer decide to balance detailed characterisation with intricate plotting? At the moment, I’m reading two novels that are are complex stories with complex characters—Mick Herron’s tale of spies Slow Horses and C.J. Sansom’s seventh story about Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake Tombland. A lot of concentration is needed to work out what’s going on. Fans of these two authors are hooked by their love of the main players and also by the intrigue of the plots.

It made me wonder what the opposite would be, with a simple plot featuring simple characters. That could be a description of a fairy tale, fable or legend, but stories which have lasted hundreds of years hold universal truths about humanity, so their simplicity is a virtue.

It could also describe bad writing, where the plotting is bare and the characters two-dimensional! :confused:

About half of the fiction I read is in my writing genre of Crime. I can think of some stories I enjoyed because of the primitive nature of the plot which drove the action, but which had poor characterisation...these might be better described as Thrillers.

Sometimes, the opposite happens, even with skilled best-selling authors I love, such as James Lee Burke and John Connolly. Their success means they’re permitted to turn in manuscripts that are 720 pages long. A typical crime novel would have 340 pages. The extra bulk doesn’t come from complex plotting, it’s more from in-depth characterisation.

With my Cornish Detective series, I’ve aimed for a blend of simple plotting and describing my characters’ personalities, thoughts and reactions in enough detail to encourage readers to bond with them. My stories are more ‘howcatchem’ than ‘whodunnit’, which helps to simplify the plotting.

Do you agree with the writing advice: “The best stories have simple plots with complex characters.”?

Does it apply to your favourite books?

What about your writing?

Hmm ... I'll read anything, but I do take pleasure in working out how the plot comes together.
How do you define a "complex character"? One could argue that simple characters are only simple because we haven't looked at them closely enough. Star Wars seems to me the epitome of "simple plot / simple characters", but throw in a few character complications (Luke's parentage, the possibility of Vader's redemption, Han's loyalty) and you get a classic like Empire.

The complications of the characters contribute to the complexity of the plot. Nobody wants to read dozens of pages about a character's conflicted morality or tragic backstory unless it makes them act in a way that demonstrates that morality or the effects of that backstory. To show the depth of the characters, you generally need to give them something in the plot to reflect or affect (or be affected by) that complexity.

What constitutes a "simple plot"? The simplest plot is John wants something: John gets something. Not much of a story there. Instead we're encouraged to plonk an obstacle or two in the way. The story becomes John overcoming said obstacle. Put enough obstacles in the way and you have a novel. It's also going to be hella boring. Personally I'd like to see more than one problem at a time, obstacles bouncing off each other to create unexpected effects, escalation (John overcomes an obstacle, only to learn at the end of the book that he's triggered a much worse one) and recurrence (John finds at the end of the story that his solution to an early problem gave him something he needs to overcome the biggest obstacle). And so on.

My favourite stories are ones where a seemingly simple problem grows into a mountain of complications and peril, and where the solution - which might be relatively simple - untangles from the snarl of circumstances. I generally don't hold truck with aphorisms because they're so often untrue.
How would I define a simple plot/simple character? Here's a try:
Simple plot: one main character making the decisions that lead to the next bump in the road. Example: Wolf mother must leave her last remaining cub to find food or they both die. Leaves den to search. Finds a carcass. Another wolf has claimed it. She must decide whether to fight him off at the risk of severe injury or death, or make an ally of him in order to share his bounty and keep her cub alive. Decision: He's not of her pack, so fight it is - not that he gave her any choice; he's just as hungry. Fight ends with a win, but injured. Can she drag the carcass back to the den?
etc. to the end.
That's a simple story because it has one character with one main aim, but it can still be compelling. A lot of the Goosebumps stories could be defined as 'simple' stories.

more than one problem at a time, obstacles bouncing off each other to create unexpected effects,
Maybe a read of Chuck Wendig and his idea of a roller-coaster ride:

...(Speaking of different directions, it’s worth again reminding ourselves of the image of a roller coaster: a three-dimensional ride that is sometimes about going up slowly, sometimes about going down swiftly, but other times about whipping right or left, corkscrewing through the air, or turning us upside down when we think we should be right-side up.)...

Wendig, Chuck. Damn Fine Story (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A simple character? How simple is the character Charlie in Flowers for Algernon? He's happy with his life until ... and then the big stuff in the middle, but does it make him happy? In the end, he returns to being happy to be himself. He seems to have forgotten the middle part of the story, except he always leaves flowers on the grave in the backyard.
I don't think that makes him a simple person, just a simple character, because his story is his story and his alone. His decisions are made by others, then he's forced to make decisions, then it returns to his life being ruled over and decided by others. it is still a story with depth.
A simple character? I don't think such a thing exists - they are as real as people, with baggage, beliefs, and the need to adapt as the 'life'-story unfolds.
Is James Bond a simple character?
It may seem so, on the outside, but there's so much more. He must be of a certain 'type' to fit the role, but that type has its own complexities.

Being a character is no simple thing.
As a follow-on to a 'simple' story - what makes it lift out of dreariness is in the stakes - and for that, it has to be character stakes, and if the stakes are raised in each scene, or even at each turn, it can lift a story from simple to heart-felt.
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Is Writing a Racket?

How to Write a Synopsis?