High Concept vs. High Character

When you’re reading a story, watching a movie, or picking a new TV series to obsess over, which do you care about more–that the premise is new and interesting or that the characters are believable and interesting?

I recently had a discussion with my wife about this because while watching Doctor Who with my dad, I had one of those whizz-bang ideas that just won’t leave you alone. I pulled out my iPhone and started making notes immediately. The idea was too good to lose.

So I went home, handed the notes to my wife, and told her, “tell me what you think.” I was beaming. I was so proud of myself.

Her response was simple: “Meh. Who is it about?”

I was dumbfounded. I had no idea. To me, it didn’t matter who it was about. The whole point was the idea itself. It was a fantastic idea. It was high concept, something that had the potential to blend genre and literary fiction. The who could come later.

Just not for Jennifer. She couldn’t care less about the idea. High concept or not, there was no one to relate to, so she wasn’t interested.

That got me to thinking: which is more important? As a writer, do I need to focus more on the people these stories are about than the premise of the stories I’m writing? Is one better than the other?

No, one isn’t better than the other. A good story is a good story is a good story. But there are specific elements that comprise a good story, and finding that balance is important.

Tobias Buckell has that down pat. He says that there are two things a writer should remember when putting together a short story: “What’s the fucking point?” and “a short story is often said to be about the most important day of a character’s life.”

When broken down, one is high concept while the other is high character.

High Concept

Ideas are easy. Every writer has a thousand ideas, and every reader thinks he or she has a thousand better ones. Most of those two thousand ideas are crap–rehashed, recycled, cliches, blah blah blah.

But once in a blue moon, you have an idea that’s fresh and interesting, that does something new you’ve never thought of. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi is high concept: 75 year old men and women are recruited for the army to fight in an intergalactic war for territory. “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Has Made” is high concept: Mormon space whales living in the sun. ‘Nuff said.

In these stories, there are obviously characters. But the characters are not the point. The characters, while three-dimensional and real, are not the focus of the story. They are facilitators of the story. They are motivated and pushed through the narrative so that readers get a full view and explanation of the concept at its core.

Coming up with a high concept idea is one thing. Writing it well and making it salable is something else. Short stories and novels aren’t just ideas. They can start that way, but without a rounded narrative, they are empty.

There are millions of desk-drawer high concept novels out there just because the writers couldn’t figure out how to put a beginning, middle, and an end to it. If you’ve got a high concept idea, be sure that you flesh it out, that you make sure it has some meaning.

Take your fantastic idea, and if you can’t answer “What’s the fucking point?” then you should probably keep it stewing for a while until you can.

High Character

On the other hand, sometimes you have the idea for a character and have nowhere to stick her. You have this kick-ass heroine who battles ogres by night and is a world-class tennis champion by day. You have a backstory for her, and you know every detail about why she is the way she is.

But you’ve got no real story other than that. You don’t have the day-to-day life of this person.  You don’t have a situation in which her tennis skills will help her in her crusade against the ogres.  You just know that she’s awesome.

That’s what high character novels and stories are about.  That’s how you can write a story and let the reader see, as Buckell put it, “the most important day of that character’s life.”  That day might be just another day for you and me. We might stroll idly past the ogre-filled brothel none the wiser, but your heroine…no, she goes in there, slaughters some ogres-of-the-night, and comes out an entirely different person.

The events in-between don’t matter. Just her evolution and character arc because we see her going from Point A to Point Z.

There are a lot of examples of high character works out there. Harry Potter is a prime example. Sure, the school of witchcraft and wizardry is cool, but those kinds of books are honestly a dime a dozen. What keeps us reading those books then? To find out what happens to Harry, Hermione, and Ron! That’s what!

Even TV has its high character forays. Take ABC’s Castle for instance. As much as I love the show, the procedural aspect of the series is nothing we haven’t seen before. However, because of who Rick Castle is–a NYT bestelling author with a daugher and live-in, actress mother–I watch the show every week.  The whodunnit aspect of the show is good enough, but the real draw of the show is Richard Castle himself.

In the end…

In the end, though, there’s nothing saying that you can’t have a novel or a movie or a show that has a fantastically awesome premise and a fantastically interesting character to go along with it.  Just more often than not, it’s one or the other.

Do you have a preference for one over the other? Are you more interested in the premise of a text, or the people it’s about?

Comments

  1. Longasc

    Very interesting thoughts and hard to answer.
    I like to read Lois McMaster Bujold. I read her for her fascinating characters. She combines that with interesting stories as well, but all in all they are definitely not “high concept”, often quite the opposite.

    I like “high concept” as well. I like Old Man’s War by Scalzi and Spin by Wilson is even more high concept, his characters are often rather bad to be honest.

    So I apparently don’t have a strong preference in the one or the other direction. I wanted to write that high concept makes it more likely that the book fails right away if this particular concept doesn’t appeal to the reader, but the very same can be said for heavily character based writing as well.

  2. Longasc

    On the other hand… if you hit exactly the nerve of what people apparently want at a certain point in time, you can probably write a rather poor story about werewolves and vampires fighting for the love of a rather lowly human girl or something about has hilariously stupid and get away with it! 😉

  3. Hrm… tough question. When reading, I find I tend to like both, depending on my mood. Sometimes I want high character (say, Drizz’t or Harry Potter), sometimes I want something high concept like Foundation or Dune. I think I prefer the high concept when I can pay attention to the book better, and high concept when I’m just looking for something low-impact.

  4. I love this post! You’ve freshly analyzed something that’s always perplexed me about my own writing. I’m very much concept-driven and always struggle with the characters.

    Would love it if you could analyze how a writer slanted one way embraces the other side! 🙂

  5. I think that you have to find a good balance of both… Honestly, I’ve read books and watched movies where the characters were just fodder for the concept of the item in question (“Inception” comes to mind here… I had to watch it three times to really get all the names down… they all seemed to be stock characters to me). I’ve also had similar experiences with great characters but the story itself was lacking…

    Myself, I prefer high concept because I get into a new story with characters that might not necessarily be as strong. However, if they are characters that fill the roles within the certain genre, I find it bearable… Most of the time, I can’t get into the books with good characters without the high concept because the frame of the concept turns me off to the whole of the novel, short story, film, etc.

  6. If I really had to make a claim, I guess that I would pick high character. Like you, I love Castle, but most crime procedurals drive me crazy. I can’t watch anything Law and Order because I feel like I barely get to know the characters, but considering it’s long run, enough people must’ve found it entertaining.

    But on the other hand, I don’t mind stock characters as long as the story is fascinating. I suppose that it just comes down to being able to pull in the reader/viewer. If you can do that, you’re gold.

  7. Bibs

    High-concept ideas are what agents and editors are looking for, the one line pitch that sparks interest and defines a book. If you can sum up your book in a tantalizing way, you’re on your way.

  8. *vlad*

    Good characters can turn a mediocre story into a good one. Is there a good story without good characters?