Wednesday, September 3, 2008

One must have good CHARACTER...

I've often mentioned in reviews how important good character development is to me in a book. So, for awhile now I've been mulling around thoughts for a post on character, and recently two items arose in my reading to light a fire under me and get this discussion started.

One of those two items was a "Booking Through Thursday" topic that I noticed a couple of bloggers responding to. The topic read like this:

If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next? Or, um, is it just me?

I don't know where these topics originate, so I don't know who the "me" is, but I knew that I disagreed with the statement. And I had trouble putting it into words until I read a resolution that Tim Hallinan had in a guest post he did on the Acme Writers' blog. His resolution said:

6. Follow my characters rather than trying to push them around like chess pieces. Remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to jam them into.

Yes, Tim! Exactly. As a reader, that's exactly what I want to read. The greatest plot in the world will fall flat on its face if you try to shove the wrong characters into it. Or, as I experienced with Joseph Wambaugh, if you try to tell too many characters' stories all at once, it just doesn't work. Doesn't matter how funny or alluring those stories are. The plot must fit with the characters.

As far as finding out what happens next; I want to find out what happens next only if I have made connections with the character. If I love the character and want to see everything work out for him/her or if I hate the character and what to see him/her get their due. If I'm indifferent to a character, I can put a book down with no trouble. And I don't know that I can give an example of an excellent plot existing without excellent characters. But then again, I'm far more likely to abandon a book if the characters don't do anything for maybe there are some great plots out there that I never ended up finishing.

The greatest books I read leave the characters knocking around inside my head for days or weeks after I finish the book. I'm not thinking about what happened in the book but rather what those characters are doing/thinking/being after the conclusion. I'm thinking about how they'd react to events I encounter or events in the news. Maybe I'll see a person on the street and that person makes me think of a character from a book I enjoyed. Characters live on for me long after a plot has ended, so how they are developed and how they interact with others is vital.

I'm not at all saying that plot isn't important. But plot needs to grow from characters. For example, if Harlan Coben had tried to put Myron Bolitar on Shutter Island, it would have never worked. And Robert Crais could never have Elvis Cole dictating his family around like Bull Meecham. And how about Craig Johnson? His plots would have to be entirely different if he didn't have the likes of the Cheyenne characters.

If a writer has a great idea for a plot, he/she has to cultivate the characters that are appropriate for that plot. But if you have great ideas for characters, then you let those characters go and the plot emerges.

When I listened to Michael Koryta talk about his most recent book, Envy the Night, he described how it was born. How he thought about a character who was considered evil by the general population because of his acts...but a character who at the same time may have been a good family man. So, Envy the Night bloomed from that character idea. And Michael will also often say that he follows where the characters take him when he writes.

I've mentioned Corey's blog The Drowning Machine before, and he had a post back in July about what he would drink with characters if he were out to dinner with them. It was a fantastic post. I'm not a connoisseur of "drink", but it was a blast to read - Corey is so much more refined than I (although, I do know Kool-Aid!)! He decided what he would drink with these folk based on their character. Those characters have stayed with him; who they are left an impression great enough for him to determine a good drink to share with each of them.

O.k., now that you know how important Character is to me in a book, let's talk about the characters at the top of my list of favorites. I'll tell you, this was hard for me to narrow down - and I did kind of cheat (sorry). But, I came up with a Top 10 of All Adult Fiction characters and a Top 10 of Mystery/Suspense/Crime Fiction characters. I'm not even going to try to claim that I'm widely read enough for this to be a legitimate list, but they are MY Top 10 within my tiny world of reading. So, for my Mystery/Suspense/Fiction I have the following characters:

10. Temperance Brennan (Kathy Reichs)
9. Poke Rafferty (Tim Hallinan)
8. Spenser (Robert Parker)
7. Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben)
6. Kel McKelvey (Thomas Holland)
5. Ellie Hatcher (Alafair Burke)
4. Lincoln Perry (Michael Koryta)
3. Walt Longmire/Henry Standing Bear (Craig Johnson)
2. Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke)
1. Elvis Cole/Joe Pike (Robert Crais)

And yes, before anyone mentions it, I know my list is heavily white males. I will admit that I tend to be harder on my evaluations of female characters. I become irritated with "silliness" in female characters or females who are constantly in need of "saving." The race of my characters I have no excuse for at all. The largest percentage of the books I have read to date have been written by white males and their characters tend to be white males as well. Sorry.

As for my Top 10 Adult Fiction characters. This list was even harder, but here goes:

10. Lady MacBeth (Shakespeare)
9. Walt Longmire/Henry Standing Bear (Craig Johnson)
8. R.P. McMurphy (Ken Kesey)
7. Elizabeth Bennett (Jane Austen)
6. Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke)
5. Jay Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. Huck Finn (Mark Twain)
3. Owen Meany (John Irving)
2. Elvis Cole/Joe Pike (Robert Crais)
1. Atticus Finch/Scout Finch (Harper Lee)

I guess there could be some argument whether To Kill a Mockingbird is actually Adult Fiction, but I can find it in the adult section of the library, so it stays. Isn't it a prime example of character dictating plot, though?

So, there you have it. Tomorrow my list could be significantly different. There were several characters that it pained me to ultimately eliminate. They are close to the top 10 - runners up, I guess you could say, but these are the ones that made the final cut. Maybe I'll revisit this list next year and see how much it's changed. After all, before this summer Ellie, Walt, Kel, and Poke wouldn't have been on the list at all! There are so many great characters out there and I'm looking forward to meeting many, many more.

Happy Reading!!


beauvallet September 3, 2008 at 11:15 AM  

Jen, this is a brilliant topic because you're making me think about this whole topic v plot notion. I'm going to run some things over to the Salvation Army thrift store, including (gasp) some books (I was feeling very strong this morning), and I'll be thinking about this. I know that like you I have lots of favorite characters, but I also know that I have read some books almost completely plot-driven that I have enjoyed. Yes, I have to give some consideration to your words today.

Kay September 3, 2008 at 8:52 PM  

I love this post. Quite thought-provoking but you hit the nail on the head in many ways for me. I have enjoyed plot-driven books and will read them occasionally...occasionally. However, what I really love are character-driven books because I like to crawl into the book and "live" with the character for as long as I can. If I love them that is. I am finding that I must be able to connect in some way to a character in the book. I don't have to love every character but I have to like at least one and feel that right will triumph or justice will prevail or they will live happily ever after or whatnot. I love stories that go on and on and series mysteries with strong characters are like that for me.

Just off the top of my head (without looking at my reading logs), I would say that some of my favorites are: Judge Deborah Knott (Margaret Maron), Kate Shugak (Dana Stabenow), Daisy Dalrymple (Carola Dunn), Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben), John Ceepak & Danny Boyle (Chris Grabenstein), Amelia Peabody Emerson (Elizabeth Peters), Will Trent (Karin Slaughter), the Monkeewrench Gang (P.J. Tracy), Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), Claire & Jamie Fraser (Diana Gabaldon), and perhaps my favorite policeman ever, Inspector Gamache (Louise Penny).

beauvallet September 3, 2008 at 9:57 PM  

Gotta say it again, Jen, great topic!

I guess I have to say that I find character and plot to be entirely symbiotic. An author can make the most interesting character in the world, full of tics and angst and humor and appeal, but if that character sits on his tush or the author gives him/her nothing to do, then I'm done. And if the plot devices are stellar but the characters either bore me or repel me, I'm done then, too.

Examples of characters being better than the plot: Thomas Perry's 'Nightlife.' There he drew two very strong female protagonists, cop and killer, but the plot was just so much recycled dishwater. (The same plot was done and done better by John Sandford in 'Certain Prey.' It even rated a sequel.) I'm usually a fan of Perry's work, but the plot was dull and unoriginal.

Example of plot being better than the characters: Duane Swierczynski's 'Severance Package.' Everything is action and shoot-em-up and who can get out of the office alive. Problem is, by halfway through the book I didn't care because none of the people were 3D to me. And again, Swierczynski's previous books were, IMHO, terrific.

So I just gotta have both. I'm not happy otherwise. But characters that I will take a lot more guff from than others (and I can't stay with only 10, I just have too many faves for that:

12. Thomas Black (Earl Emerson). A bike-riding PI. Loves his girlfriend so much he'd kill her fiance (well, you have to read the books to see how that came about).

11. Mac Fontana (Earl Emerson again, different series). Mac has a really 'skeery' dog, is himself a great dancer, and takes political guff from no man. Or woman. You betcha!

10. Lincoln Perry (Michael Koryta). He's got the same DNA as Elvis Cole, I'm positive, so what's not to like?

9. Art Hardin (Robert Bailey). Art is no stoic, @ss-kicking macho man. He's a middle-aged man with smart kids, a smarter wife, and a good sense of humor. Luckily for him. I just hope Bailey finds another publisher, because 3 books were not enough.

8.Jack Taylor (Ken Bruen). Jack has the world's most addictive personality, and I'm addicted to him.

7. Brant (another Ken Bruen, different series). Brant is just amoral. And so, so street smart. And I can't help admiring his basketball-sized cojones. :-)

6. Lucas Davenport (John Sandford). And his buddies, Del Capslock and Sloan. I love these characters, they are so alive for me that I never need Sandford to write anything else descriptive about them. Their dialogue alone does it for me.

5. Donald Lam (AA Fair aka Erle Stanley Gardner). Yeah, an old pulp character. Maybe Gardner was no great shakes at character development, all his critics say so. But then why do I love super-smart, handsome, sensitive, slightly vindictive, disbarred lawyer, PI Donald Lam?

4. Jack Reacher (Lee Child). I'm pretty sure I like Reacher for all the same reasons everyone else does.

3. Modesty Blaise & Willie Garvin (Peter O'Donnell). I re-read these books roughly every two years. I start right at the beginning and go straight through. No better action, laughs, and genuinely intriguing characters than Modesty and Willie.

3. Dave Robicheaux & Clete Purcel (James Lee Burke). Okay, I have a deep crush on Clete Purcel. And wouldn't it be great to share a Dr. Pepper (a la Corey Wilde!) with Dave while discussing Greek mythology?

2. John Dortmunder (Donald E. Westlake). I'm so slow, I only glommed on to these hysterical books a couple of years ago. Dortmunder & his gang of adept but unlucky crooks take my breath away with both their smarts and their frantic improvisational skills.

1. Elvis Cole & Joe Pike (Robert Crais). Nobody does it better. And in the immortal words of Stan Lee, 'Nuff said.'

le0pard13 September 3, 2008 at 10:01 PM  

Jen, I have to agree with the other commentators, this was another excellent post. Wise, literate, and fun. That's why I keep coming back to this blog.

beauvallet September 3, 2008 at 10:07 PM  

BTW, Jen, I'm right beside you with my list being dominated by white males. Only one woman, in fact, Modesty Blaise, whose ethnicity is never entirely determined. And she's never silly or she wouldn't be on my list, but she does have a great sense of humor.

The vast majority of published crime fiction historically, until the last 10 years or so, has been written by white men for white men, so I think it's understandable that a list of favorites would be so dominated by them.

And of course, I need to add an honorable mention to my list. Sean Chercover's character Ray Dudgeon is not yet a series character (book two is due in October), but I have this notion that Ray is going to either muscle or think his way on to my list.

Jen September 4, 2008 at 6:18 AM  

Wow, guys! Thanks for all the great comments! And I now have an even longer TBR list...gotta check out some of these great characters I haven't met yet. Naomi, I found two Thomas Black books this past weekend - the first two, I believe. They are high on the TBR list.

Now I'm going to have to work hard to come up with some more good discussion topics. If anyone ever has a good one they want to see on here, e-mail me!!

Laura September 4, 2008 at 9:13 AM  

Wonderful lists, Jen, and a great subject.

When I begin writing a story or a novel I only have a sketchy idea of what the plot will be--maybe just a location or a situation. What happens is all up to the characters. If they're not surprising me, the story's not working!

Thanks for coming by Notes from the Handbasket, too!

Corey Wilde September 4, 2008 at 8:53 PM  

Great characters certainly are necessary to the success of a series. Can you imagine Parker's series without Spenser as he is, or Hawk or Susan? And the interplay between those characters. If every Spenser story had been just like the first -- no Hawk, no Susan -- would Spenser have been as interesting a character. Not in my opinion.

Looks like everyone has pretty much pegged most of my favorite series characters but here are a few more that shouldn't be overlooked:

Travis McGee
Chance Purdue
Parker (from the Richard Stark books)
Sam Spade
Phillip Marlowe

Jen, thanks for the nod to the drinking blog, and on that subject: What would you drink with Elvis and Joe?

Sherry September 5, 2008 at 3:36 PM  

Congratulations! I was checking out all the nominees for the Book Blogger Appreciation Awards and trying to live up to my nomination by inviting everyone over to Semicolon tomorrow for the Saturday Review of Books. It's just a place I provide each Saturday to leave links to your book reviews for the week, and you're certainly invited to contribute and to enjoy the reviews by other book bloggers.

I made a list a couple of years ago of favorite TV detectives, and looking back I see that they're all male except one. I don't know if it's the possible selections or the attraction to male characters that made it turn out that way.

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