#92: Character v Plot

Character v PlotSo here’s a starting point that doesn’t belong on a blog about crime fiction between 1920 and 1959 with frequent diversions into apparent impossibilities: I freakin’ love Batman. The whole Bruce Wayne/Batman duality in almost any form is an absolute joy to me – I’m not going to geek out here over the many, many years I’ve spent reading the comics nor the sundry disappointments of the various cinematic fusterclucks (I’m looking daggers at you, Schumacher…Burton, you’re borderline), and shall instead make the following observation: the second I heard Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced, I’d practically bought my ticket on the fact of it being a new Batman incarnation.

And the film?  Well, it wasn’t great, but it did have a great Batman that while not completely loyal was, for my money, easily the most interesting thing that’s been done with the character on the (big) screen (and, on a side note, what is there to be loyal to any more?  I mean, there are so many versions of Batman, where are you supposed to go for your immutable inspiration?).  The plot was…well, kinda terrible, but I loved the fact that I was able to sit through something new with that character which actually felt like a genuine realisation of that character – it’s fair to say that a lot of us who have followed the ups and (mostly) downs of Bruce Wayne over the years didn’t want another origin story, and coming in later in the career of the World’s Greatest Detective was a gleefully brilliant decision to explore the changing face of the character.

But, and here’s the thing, the word I’m using again and again is character.  I was sold on that movie because of the character of Batman.  If I’d gone in looking for an exciting or well-developed plot…well, no, I’d be less convinced.  As I read more and more Agatha Christie, getting closer to the end of her output where her plotting begins to decline, the same becomes true: I’m only sold on these later books because of Batman.  I, er, mean the characters – who doesn’t want to spend more time with Papa Poirot or Old Aunt Jane, especially – as I’ve posited first here and then again here – when these familiar faces can be used to explore a larger point in the context of Christie’s writing?

Character is what a book, especially a detective novel, is based around: crimes are committed against people, other people come to investigate them, more people are sucked in, and there’s (usually) a revelation concerning the involvement of one or more of those people which should surprise and delight us come the end.  Without some investment in these people there’s no real motivation to get involved, and nothing to drag you to the finish line to discover who did what to whom and why (and sometimes how, too).  The who and the why – the bits rooted in character rather than action – are what drives the entire enterprise, and you can’t really function without it.

Except, and here’s the thing, give me a choice between a book with genius characters and a book with a genius plot and I will bite your hand off if I believe it will help me get to the plot quicker.

In my eyes, wonderful characters can be sunk by a terrible plot far more easily than a plot will be dragged down by poor characterisation.  Personally, I delight in being caught up in a scheme of such brilliance that you never know where it’s actually going, and have suffered through many bland and unrealised characters to see the plot through – whereas the converse is true a much smaller proportion of the time.  I have come to hugely enjoy the novels of Christianna Brand and Catherine Aird, to name but two, even though their detectives are virtually interchangeable with a) each other and b) about eight or nine other authors’ chosen sleuths (Roderick Alleyn, Alan Grant, etc).  This is because they take a plot and push it and develop it so wonderfully that the tropes of character are totally fine by me: in fact, that’s the right word – tropes.  I’d rather fall back on character tropes than hoary plot developments, which is probably why I get so much joy from the novels of John Dickson Carr, Paul Halter, Rupert Penny and others who have failed to catch fire with even such discerning readers as my good friend Brad at AhSweetMysteryBlog.

In a way, this post is motivated by the next two books to feature on this blog: Carter Dickson’s Death in Five Boxes and Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Sharkskin Book, both of which fall on different sides of this fence – the first is a wonderful plot with unrealised characters, the second a fabulous character cast adrift in the dullest and slowest plot I’ve tolerated for some time – but it’s also part of a wider issue that keeps cropping up in the conversations and reviews I see on so many blogs. I had no particular plans to write about this until about 40 minutes ago when, 38 pages into Slight Mourning by Catherine Aird, I realised how little the actual character of Inspector “Seedy” Sloan matters, and how much the other characters are clearly going to fall into a broad type and be suspicious or otherwise for the next 130 pages.  And how completely fine I was with that.

Naturally, the two don’t separate out this distinctly: no plot is devoid entirely of character, and even the most character-rich study has to give them something to do – particularly in my given field of crime fiction.  At a more atavistic level it’s really about writing over character or plot, but give me that choice and – 63 times out of 80 – I’m opting for plot, plot, puzzle, scheme, plot, and more plot, and I’ll happily take what character can be gleaned from that in the process.

Aaaah, that feels better.  Does anyone have any thoughts they’d care to add?

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35 thoughts on “#92: Character v Plot

  1. Sooner or later I hope to actually catch up with the film – as for the eternal character vs plot question, well, that is why THE WOMAN IN WHITE and THE MALTESE FALCON are such classics and so well worth celebrating as they are so damn rare!

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    • See, now I’m not even sure The Maltese Falcon has a plot in the strictest sense…so much happens that we’re given no meaning for until the end, and it’s not like you can ever look back and go “Ohhhh, yeah, I see why that happened….” because you’re never really told anything beyond what Sam Spade is doing. It’s a weird one.

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        • Ah, The Glass Key – now you’re talking; Hammett’s best book by a mile, and exactly the right balance of everything, even for this puzzler’s tastes. The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Red Harvest I can take or leave, but The Glass Key is a beautiful piece of work.

          And, y’know something? I’ve not read any Wilkie Collins – I fear it may veer to close to late-Victorian ‘sensation fiction’ for my tastes, but I imagine I’ll have to give him a go at some point…

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          • I’ve not read any Wilkie Collins

            He’s worth reading. I preferred The Woman in White to The Moonstone. If you’re going to explore Victorian sensation novels Sheridan le Fanu is even better than Wilkie Collins – Wylder’s Hand is superb.

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          • I’m just not sure how much ‘sensation’ fiction agrees with me, y’know? But, still, if you’re gonna try something then you might as well try the best…duly noted, many thanks.

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      • See, now I’m not even sure The Maltese Falcon has a plot in the strictest sense…

        The plot doesn’t really seem to matter much. I don’t think the characters matter much either. What does matter is the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and double-dealing. The Falcon itself is just a McGuffin – it merely serves to trigger the greed and duplicity of the characters. I don’t think Hammett ever cared much about plot – he just liked to set up an atmosphere of corruption and lies and double-crosses and watch his characters wallow in their own moral squalor.

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        • The actions of Spade throughout are certainly designed to give them impression that things are building to a head, that there’s a cause-and-effect structure in place, though. It’s just a shame we’re not privy to more of that, because it would be a very interesting book if you had any idea of what was going on…!

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  2. I suppose I fall on the character side of the debate and will probably tolerate more plot problems than you if I really like a character or like the narrative style. But for me one of my biggest bugbears with some plot focused GAD novels (*cough* Rupert Penny *cough*) is that the narrative style suffers and can become overly technical and dry, which can also emphasis the lack of characterisation. If on the other hand the narrative style is strong and hooks me, that can sometimes mitigate the lack of focus on characterisation, as I am not drawn into noticing it.

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    • I wonder if the issue with a perceived lack of characterisation in GAD is that there’s not always a well-defined arc for everyone…some people are just there to be a red herring, after all, and will come out exactly the same as they went in. Is that fair? I’m less concerned with what happens to them than I am with a set of circumstances being picked apart, with being misled by clever misdirection. Inevitably characters play into that, but at times that’s the sole purpose of them…

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      • Well initially I was going to say that main characters need a narrative arc and need to be impacted by the events of the book. But then I realised serial detectives like Poirot don’t always do this yet aren’t bad. Equally having a detective who is always emotionally introspecting on everything can become an overused trope in itself. I think Sayers does balances this quite well as her transformation of LPW took place over several books, though not so many that the changes became predictable. I think when it comes to main suspects it is easier to have them impacted by events, as they don’t have to reappear in another book.

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        • Most long-term detectives don’t really alter that quickly or that greatly though, do they? The only real example I can come up with is the three stages of Ellery Queen as Brad outlined in his ‘holiday’ post a few weeks ago – and no-one is going to tell me that the Queen books, even at their most character-driven, aren’t about the plot!

          Given that the average crime novel has to give us setup, clues, investigation, resolution and explanation, is it really fair to expect them to also provide narrative arcs for the monior characters? Isn’t that what you have to sacrifice in order for a plot to be worth plotting?

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          • Well I can think of the odd exceptions to the rule, Erast Fandorin alters a lot in his first outing, the consequences of which stay with him in the rest of the series. I do see what you mean though. I don’t think every single character needs a full story in the book, that doesn’t even happen in non crime fiction novels. But I think there are great writers out there who can balance both characters and plots and I don’t think a great plot always has to sacrifice characterisation. Sometimes a plot is only great because of the great characters who are propelling it along.

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  3. I love Batman, although I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fanboy, but I still haven’t seen Batman vs. Superman, mainly because I dislike Zack Snyder’s directing style and the negative reviews didn’t help much either, but reading this post has convinced me that I should watch it.

    As for character vs. plot: Personally I would prefer there to be a healthy balance between the two.

    Just to give an example:
    The two most recent books I read were “Brat Farrar” by Josephine Tey and “He Who Whispers” by J. D. C. The former had its emphasis on character over the mystery plot while the latter has such a fine balance between character and plot, providing the best of both, making for a far more satisfying reading experience.

    There are some authors who can make a clever plot with flat characters work, Henry Wade comes to mind, whose detectives are just completely unmemorable.

    Yet, to just pick a random example, I prefer Bill Pronzini’s “A Wasteland Of Strangers” to his Nameless Detective novels, since I find the character-driven action of the former more exciting.

    If I had to name my favourite mystery novel it would be a toss-up between “And Then There Were None” and Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”. So I guess in the end I just can’t decide which is more important character or plot.

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    • I’m very much looking forward to the Henry Wade books that are coming out from The Murder Room next month – have you read enough to suggest a suitable starting point? And, yeah, the couple of Pronzini Nameless books I’ve read haven’t exactly blown me away in either department…his characters are too flat and his plots are too workmanlike.

      Oh, and I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard Batman fanboy. As for what others might call me, well… 🙂

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      • I’ve only read 3 novels by Wade: Lonely Magdalen; Constable Guard Thyself and (perhaps my favourite so far) New Graves At Great Norne. I can wholeheartedly recommend “Constable” and “NGAGN”, I was less fond of Magdalen since it seemed more concerned with social commentary than providing an ingenious puzzle plot.

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        • Awesome, many thanks – I’d heard of Constable… before (to my understanding it’s an impossible crime, woo!) and have from somewhere the understanding that Heir Presumptive is supposed to be very good, but New Graves… is a completely *ahem* new one to me. I’ve put it on my “buy this one first” list and will use it and CGT to gauge my response to Wade – watch this space!

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  4. I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of character VERSUS plot; both are useful tools for the writer (and so is the semicolon, despite what self-appointed grammar experts say). It would be like a carpenter saying, “I don’t feel like using a saw today; I’ll just use my hammer to shape the wood.”

    I am with you when it comes to detective fiction (DF), which BY ITS VERY NATURE is sui generis; thus DF authors can get away with strong plots and poor characterization but NOT with the converse. Anybody sitting down to write what he/she thinks is a detective story with great characters but little or no mystery plot just ain’t writing DF, should abandon the project immediately, and commence with their effort to produce The Great (nationality here) Mainstream Novel.

    That being said, it’s really great when a DF author can balance style, plot, and characterization into a satisfying whole, like the finest works of art with their pleasing proportionalities; it doesn’t happen often enough, but it’s something all writers should aim for.

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    • Thanks, Mike – both for your support of my points above and your defence of the semicolon!

      Part of me also wonders if the focus on character takes a novel away from being detective fiction and more into the fields of thrillerdom; given that thrillers are typically about the situations characters are put in, the focus on character becomes more important there.

      Out of interest, what detective novels would you say strike the plot/character balance best? I’m with the King of Ravens above on He Who Whispers, and would add Josephine Tey’s The Frnachise Affair and Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 for its sheer plot density and brilliance of character-unravelling (just a shame it stops rather than ends in any definite sense…). Doubtless countless others, too, but I shan’t go on. Would be interested in what you’d pick…

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      • Yes, the thriller has its own requirements, but they don’t exclude any of the other writing essentials. For example, I’m just starting on a ’30s novelette by Cornell Woolrich, who has been – so far – definitely one of the most effective thriller writers I’ve encountered; at his best he could integrate plot and character like few others could – BUT he also had his off days.

        As for JDC, it’s the same – blowing hot (usually) but sometimes cold (which may be saying more about me than Carr – I have my off days, too). Like the little girl with the curl, when he was good . . . Sometimes I think that a nickname for JDC could easily be “Mr. Plot,” he was so consistently good at it.

        Does, as you say, “the focus on character take a novel away from being detective fiction and more into the fields of thrillerdom”? That’s an intriguing premise, one I’ve never thought about before. My initial reaction is that too much of a good thing, characterization in this instance, is still too much IF it overshadows plot, because in detective fiction plot is the mass around which the other elements (character, for instance) orbit; in the mainstream novel, the reverse is held to be true, and many mainstream critics and authors will tell you as much.

        The “happy medium” which so many writers tell us they want to achieve – a (near-)perfect blend of style, theme, plot, and character – still proves to be elusive. Like the circus highwire act, it’s all about balance.

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        • Yeah, in a perfect world everything would be The Problem of the Green Capsule or The Moving Toyshop…but then the standard would be so high I guess we’d be finding flaws with even these masterpieces. Still, at least you’ve hElped me put into words why I’m not such a fan of mainstream novels!

          I read some of Woolrich’s short fiction as an impressionable teen (I’m still impressionable, alas) and it didn’t really strike a chord. Maybe I should return to him now as an older, more disappointed man to see what he’s like, because a lot of people speak very highly of him and I was going through something of a Harlan Coben phase at the time…

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  5. I think plot may have have been overrated in the past (in the sense that readers and critics thought nothing else was needed to make a good detective story) but it is now very underrated (in the sense that readers and critics, not to mention writers themselves, think it secondary to character, setting, politics and what-have-you) A balance has to be found, and is difficult to achieve but when found gives the reader a thrill that neither purely plot-driven or purely character-driven books can give.

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    • I think you’re right, Xavier – the penchant now is for much more functional mould where the actual crime investigation is either sidelined for character wrangling or runs along very proceedural lines and so is vulnerable to standard, easy-to-spot tropes. And, yeah, the inevitable political-parallel or social commentary…fine, there seems to be a place for it when done well, but it is only achieved at the expense of the actual plot itself.

      Even historical mysteries aren’t immune – there’s frequently so much background being shovelled in that the plot gets sidelined, too. Which is weird, because most (say) 1930s authors didn’t go on about the politics, social mores, or other ‘period’ aspects of the time anywhere near as much as currents authors setting their books in (say) the 1930s do. And the current authors trying to write a 1930s crime novel set in the present day seem to be jumping through too many hoops – justifying the genius amateur, say, or cicumnavigating forensics to preserve the ‘classical’ feel – to make it enjoyable.

      Also, on a personal note, sorry to see you’re discontinuing ATVR. Having lurked around there and enjoyed your posts, I hope you remain part of the community as you have a lot to offer!

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  6. Clearly you’ve started something, and it deserves more of a response than I have time to give. It actually inspires me to come up with a post of my own!

    As for Henry Wade, I read The Dying Alderman, which i enjoyed enough to recommend. There is some characterization, especially revolving around one of Wade’s favorite themes, the passing of the British aristocracy- and there are three different sleuths who don’t quite fall into the prescribed roles one would expect of them! Plus, there’s a dying message which isn’t explained till the last line. I tried reading A Dying Fall after that and couldn’t get through it. Lots of stuff about furniture consignments. But it looks like we all may be talking a lot about Wade in the coming months.

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    • Any expansion of their own views on this that anyone is willing to offer up I’m more than a little curious to read. It feels like so many people have some difficulty with characters in books where I thought the characters were fine, or find characters delightful who I find boorish and one-dimensional, that I often feel I’m missing something! Obviously a balance of the two is the desired standard, as I say, but given that frequently one takes precedence over t’other it seems that – in crime ficton – plot has to be the thing to value. You take what joy you find in the characters you get, but you can’t get away from the machinations of a plot…there’s nothing to interpret there.

      Would be delighted to hear you expand on this in a full post, Brad. Shall we say that I get 15% of any profits which result from it?

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    • And, yes, here’s hoping Wade gives us something to talk about – I’m really quite exctied to see him coming back into print, so it would be a shame if he was terrible!

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  7. The less time spent on characterisation the better.

    The move towards character-driven crime fiction was a step backwards – it was a return to the style of the 19th century novel. It was also a desperate and misguided (and unsuccessful) bid to achieve respectability for the genre.

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    • I wouldn’t be so radical with regards to characterization, but I agree that most of contemporary crime fiction is a throwback to the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the genre has become a shelter for the discontents of modernist fiction. This is something I have often addressed on my blog: Why is the crime fiction genre so literarily conservative? I’m still waiting for an answer.

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      • I agree that most of contemporary crime fiction is a throwback to the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the genre has become a shelter for the discontents of modernist fiction.

        Exactly. The detective story is representative of literary modernism while the character-based psychological crime novel is pre-modernist. It’s so amusing that the proponents of the psychological crime novel liked to think of themselves as the Young Turks reacting against the Old Guard mystery writers but in fact the Young Turks were the ones who were hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date.

        Why is the crime fiction genre so literarily conservative?

        What’s interesting is that as crime fiction has become politically more radical it has become much more conservative in form. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s amazing how often political revolutionaries, once they gain power, reject modernism and all its works. Modernist art was not exactly welcomed in the Soviet Union. It’s one of life’s little ironies that Cecil Day Lewis (AKA detective story writer Nicholas Blake) was a card-carrying Marxist but was a more old-fashioned poet than the politically ultra-conservative High Tory T. S. Eliot (who was a major fan of detective fiction).

        Perhaps it’s simply that if you want to use crime fiction to get across a message it’s easier to do so if you stick to very old-fashioned forms.

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      • the genre has become a shelter for the discontents of modernist fiction

        This is what astounds me; it seems increasingly as if one simply throws out a crime novel to please ones editor or accountants. I read an interview with John Banville recently where he had the gall to claim that his crime writing (as Benjamin Black) was less valid and so easier than his ‘proper’ writing. No-one seems prepared to take to it seriously and write proper detective fiction – it’s all tongue-in-cheek bullshit or lazy, half-realised ideas. I mean, with so many people flocking to crime writing, you’d expect someone to produce a decent novel of detection…but I’m not yet aware of who qualifies.

        Maybe it’s so conservative because everyone is bandwagon-jumping (The Gone Girl Who Lost the Amnesiac Husband of Doubt…on a Train!) as a way of selling inside a perceived zeitgeist rather than writing something challenging and original. But then maybe challenging and orignal doesn’t sell (cf. James Patterson…’s ghost writers) – if there’s no market for it, who wants to waste their time writing it?

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