One of my favorite blogs is "Type M for Murder," a group blog of mystery writers, mostly Candian, but all insightful. Recently, they have been ruminating over the age-old question of plot vs. character, what takes precedence, and have even added setting into the equation. But, with all due respect to all involved, I would like to politely disagree with these fine writers and answer the question in my own way. So...
Q: What is more important in a novel, Character or Plot?
A: Whatever is more interesting in that particular story.
Let's take a step back. This question doesn't even identify who is supposed to answer it. Are we talking to writers, now, or readers? I think Vicky Delany explained it best in her post on Setting. Vicky explains that when she is seeking out a book, setting plays a large part in whether she buys it or not. In the same way, this interest is reflected in her writing. But not everyone thinks this way. I know that setting plays a very small part in what I choose to read, but a much larger part in what I choose to write.
And other readers may have completely different priorities. A cop might like to specifically pick out police procedurals because he likes to check the authenticity of the writer's information. Another cop might seek out romance novels, because he deals with cop stuff every day and doesn't want to deal with it on his downtime as well. A third cop might pick up books because he has enjoyed the author's previous work.
The analogy I came up with in my head is this: What is most important in Cinnamon Rolls: the smell, the taste, or the texture? Surely one of these things draws you to eating a cinnamon roll, likely a combination of two or all of the factors. For instance, the smell might remind you of the soft, flaky texture of a roll. Or a hankerin' might come over you and the smell would seal the deal. And this limited scenario doesn't even take into account the ingredients, the literary equivalent of which might be vocabulary, or use of language, or a long, languid style.
My point is this: one of those factors might attract you to a project, but the project can't exist without the rest. Interesting characters with nothing to do is just as boring as constant action performed by cyphers. A cinnamon roll might taste good, but the experience won't be good if it smells burnt and the dough is stale. All of these factors have to come together in a particular way to be appealing to the eater, er, reader. And not all readers have the same tolerance level. Some may not want a cinnamon roll at all. Some may want a really big cookie. Or pretzel sticks.
I gotta stop hanging out at the mall.
So, in my opinion, there is no single important element in writing or reading a book. I may even pick different projects for different reasons. I love Lawrence Block's writing style. I'm attracted to Sean Chercover's Ray Dudgeon and Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs. I love Stephen King's twisty, unpredictable plots. The first book I wrote came from the setting, with the characters and plot shoe-horned in. Which is probably why I don't like it, now. But the book I (have been) writing now is more character-based, with the setting enhancing the character and the plot coming along. And I'm also thinking about doing something similar with the first novel.
Someday, I hope to put all the ingredients together for a tasty treat. But it's likely the recipe will never be the same.