Re: RARA-AVIS: Plot vs. Character

Date: 29 Apr 2005

Vicki wrote:

"But I'm still back to my underlying question, I guess. What do people enjoy about the plot-driven novels that they don't find in the character-driven ones? It's not simplicity, that's obvious."

I like to think that the best crime fiction (all fiction, for that matter) balances plot and character, but I've got to admit that most leans one way or the other. Even though I tend to prefer PIs, I think my taste probably falls a bit more into the character side. For instance, my favorite Chandler is The Long Goodbye, which is far more about Marlowe's character than the somewhat transparent plot. Similarly, I don't remember a whole lot about the plots of James Sallis's Lew Griffin books, but that doesn't keep me from rating them very, very high.

Even those series I read that are very intricately plotted still rely on character. For instance, the plots of Ian Rankin's Rebus books have become increasingly complicated, but you never get the feeling that the characters are slaves to the plot. It's easy to think that Richard Stark's Parker series is pure plot, but the problem I had with the latest, Nobody Runs Forever, is that Stark had Parker accepting and doing things that I don't think he ever would have; based on the character I knew from past books, he would have walked away from this caper. Similarly, I finally stopped reading Ellroy's novels because the characters became nothing more than pieces to be moved around his byzantine plot (well, that and the racism, homophobia, etc, that inreasingly seemed to be the writer's, not the characters', bigotries).

I don't read a whole lot of "blockbuster" thirllers, but one I did read and enjoy very much was Douglas Winters's Run. That said, I don't remember much about the characters except that you had the usual salt and pepper partnering of two undercover cops who didn't at first know the other was a cop. However, the plot moved so quickly (not to say I now remember much of that plot) that you sped past the lack of real character and plot inconsistencies. It was cinematic, an action-adventure film on the page. I can't believe it hasn't "become a major motion picture."

As for Lehane, I don't think he scrimps on character, even in something as plot-driven as Mystic River. In fact, I thought the movie failed because it stripped away so much of the characterization. For instance, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever why Maria Gay Harden's character turns on her husband. There is no hint of the terrible internal turmoil that the book offered to explain her decision. Perhaps the terrible overacting, especially by Sean Penn (Bill Murray got robbed), was supposed to substitute for real depth of character and motivation.

I'm not sure why plot (often substituting caricature for character) is so much more popular, but I think it's obvious it is. Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lechter is always going to be better known than Patrick McGrath's Spider, both on the page and the screen.


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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 29 Apr 2005 EDT