Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Who is the character? What does she want?

by Carolyn LeComte

Sara Chandler has come to the big island of Hawaii to escape her troubled past and find peace in this place all the guidebooks call "Paradise." Lucas Henshaw is the first obstacle in her path to happiness. But he's not the last…

Question from the e-mail: What is the difference between as "plot-driven" story and a "character-driven" story, a former student asked. As you may or may not recall, I write mysteries. Yet my writers' group keeps telling me my stories are too "plot-driven." How can a mystery story not be plot-driven?

Answer: There are two kinds of stories and both have to have plot or they don't go anywhere. Character-driven plot, and story-plot, as you said. They are never so apparent as in mystery fiction. Agatha Christie wrote her “little puzzles” and her characters were rather interchangeable. But her plots are always very tricky. Okay, Poirot was a Belgian and fond of his moustache and “little grey cells.” But what do we know about him, really? What does he want? What does he care about?

In every book, somebody dies, Poirot “attempts the puzzle,” follows the clues, and eventually the murderer is caught. But Poirot, himself, never changes. He is always urbane, effective, and -- right! He, himself, is never affected by what happens in the story.

In Dick Francis, the detective character is always a part of the story. The problem, the puzzle, comes partly out of the character’s own vulnerability. I’ll grant you most of his characters are a side of Dick, who was once a world champion jockey, and so he tended to write books that involved horse racing in some way. In Odds Against, Francis’ first Sid Halley book, the hero was an ex-jockey, one whose wife made him choose between racing and her (he chose racing), then after the divorce he had a bad fall and ended his career with a crippled hand. At the beginning of the story, Sid Halley had lost everything, his marriage, his career, and in part his self-respect. There is, of course a murder, and a puzzle to solve, and Sid does it admirably, just as Poirot does, though Francis's characters tend to be in considerably more personal danger than Poirot ever saw. In solving the crime, Halley (about whom the reader cares a lot), gains a bit of his self-respect back. He is changed by what happens in the story.

Now we never care about Poirot’s self-respect. HE is never changed by what happens in the story. He is never in real danger of losing his life through the story's action. We know he was a World War I veteran, had been in the resistance, and had met Capt. Hastings, his British friend (a Dr. Watson substitute), during the war. But Poirot is not vulnerable in the current story, nor is he really part of the story, other than to play his detective game. If he fails to solve the crime, nothing will happen to him. His character will not be affected in any way. Sid Halley has a great deal more at stake. He stands to lose his self-respect and perhaps his life.

Sure these are old books, but I picked exaggerated examples to make it easy. But in Christie’s stories, the plot’s the thing. They are plot-driven, every one. Her characters are only peripherally involved. Francis’ characters always have a lot at stake, one way or another. I firmly believe the best plot comes out of character. But you still have to have a plot. Odds Against had one with a hole you could drive a truck through. I wouldn’t have finished that one, if I hadn’t cared about what might happen to Sid.

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