Character vs Plot

I am finally really reading Reamde by Neal Stephenson. I’d made it not quite 25% of the way through last time I started. This time, I’m further, and right about 25% of the way in, the story really picks up (which is about 30% sooner in the story than Anathem picked up).

It was at that point that I noticed something.

For me, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson write very similar types of books. For both, their early work was much more what we would call cyberpunk, much more obviously futuristic. But Reamde, much like the Pattern Recognition/Spook Country/Zero History trilogy (which combined is also about the same number of pages at Reamde) is ostensibly set in the present. And having finished re-reading Spook Country right before this, I can’t help but notice some key similarities and differences in two of my favorite authors.

 

Reading the newer Gibson and Stephenson books requires you to trust the author. You absolutely cannot make it through Anathem or Spook Country if you do not trust that your author will make it work. You just can’t. You absolutely must trust that the set up will make it all worth it – that all the background information you are being given will absolutely matter and pay off by the end of the book.

And yet, the way in which they handle the structure of their books, their plot and characters, is very different.

In Spook Country, Gibson introduces you to every character who is going to matter right off the bat. You get a chapter for each character. You know them from the very beginning. You must trust that these characters who seem to have nothing to do with each other, whose actions seem to have no effect on the lives of the other characters, will, by the end, be tied together in a reasonable way. You must believe that there will be a pay off to knowing everyone from the beginning and seeing their story lines developing in the same time frame. In Spook Country, you are following the characters and only meet the plot when it is necessary for understanding the characters.

Gibson writes very differently. In Reamde, you follow the plot and only meet characters when they are necessary for understanding the plot. Sometimes you get a characters back story as soon as you meet them. Sometimes you don’t get that back story until their part in the plot diverges from that of the other characters you met first. In this case, you must trust that the characters are there for a reason, that they are not filler.

 

In many ways, it is easier to read Stephenson than Gibson. It is easier to trust and follow plot than it is to trust and follow characters. If you have read both authors, imagine for a moment trying to read a 1000 page William Gibson novel. It seems nearly impossible, even if you are a fan of Gibson, even if he has earned your trust. And yet, Stephenson doesn’t appear to be able to write anything less than 1000 pages.


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