The Plot v. Character Balancing Act

Gunsmoke was on The Eternal Rerun Channel when I was visiting my mother in the nursing home the other day. I kind of half-watched it while we chatted, and I thought one scene in particular was really interesting. About ten minutes of the show was spent on a conversation that two characters had in the street – one a grizzled old lawman, the other his old flame (who introduced him to her children during this conversation).

This fascinated me because television shows don’t do this anymore. Nobody would ever direct a static scene where the only action was two characters talking on the street (unless they could intercut with odd camera angles and different film stocks). It’s like they no longer take time to develop their main characters, let alone the ones who are guest starring in the episode.

There Is a balance that one has to strike when writing a novel. Character development doesn’t always push the plot forward, but is necessary if you want readers to care enough to follow them to the end. Just plot and ideas need to be pretty special to exist in a writer’s universe where the characters are as flat as a cardboard cutout (see the works of Arthur C. Clarke).

On the other hand, tipping the scales the other way can turn a book a literary novel – where perhaps there is not much of a plot, but the characters are brilliantly defined.

There’s also an interesting phenomenon when you get to series novels. A kind of literary shorthand develops. Readers who have been with the series from the beginning know all of the character’s foibles, and go in with a set of preset expectations. Newer readers who come in at, say, volume ten, might find themselves a little lost perhaps. And it puts the author in the position of deciding whether or not to tell the story of how Aunt Matilda’s cat died while in the care of the hero/ine for the fourth, fifth, or tenth time.

Whether you do this depends, I think, on the series, and how influential the cat’s death is to the character’s arc. Better, I would think, to let that slide for a book or two, but introduce new incidents in each new book that will drive the character in future books.*

Otherwise, I think you could fall into a groove of re-used props. I’ve only read a couple of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels (#1 and #8), but I’d be hard pressed to read any of the others – I’m not really eager to learn which of the two suitors Stephanie sleeps with in any particular book, nor the details of how her car gets blown up in same.

This can plague the literary novel, too. I can’t speak for Updike’s Rabbit books, but the first six John Irving novels (all unrelated) were basically a recycling of the same plot elements until number five – The World According To Garp – was a hit. And by then, of course, he’d already cycled the writers, wrestlers, and bears into The Hotel New Hampshire.

This is why, as I work on my Comic Mystery Novel, I’m trying to develop two character arcs – one that runs between the pages of the individual book, and a larger Big Picture that will span the books of the series – if it comes to that. Hopefully this will give something to readers on both ends of the spectrum.

And, of course, none of this helps if you’re just writing one novel.

*Coming back to TV, let me play Devil’s Advocate against myself for a moment – maybe modern TV is taking its cue from series novels now, letting characters develop over the course of a season instead of trying to establish it from the onset – and it’s just more annoying now because of the frenetic cuts and camera angles. Our could it be that character doesn’t matter anymore and that style now takes precedence over substance – but more on that issue in a future essay.

NP – iTunes Shuffle Play: Barenaked Ladies – “Too Little Too Late

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