Thursday, March 14, 2013

Character-driven? Plot-driven? WTF?

Is your car engine-driven, or is it wheel- and tire-driven? Or maybe you have one of those transmission-driven models.

That's all pretty stupid, isn't it? But that's how I feel when I read about "character-driven" or "plot-driven" popular fiction, as if one is possible without the other.  (I don't recall seeing any book described as "setting-driven." Instead, one reads of a given novel that "the setting is a character," often preceded by "It's a cliché to say so, but ... " Well, yes, it is a cliché.)

I thought of this when reading Gene Kerrigan's Dagger-winning novel The Rage this week. I suspect readers will be riveted by the police protagonist and by a murderous thug named Vincent Naylor, and even more so by the supporting character of a nun whom the former tries to save from the latter. So that makes The Rage character-driven.

Except that all the good characterization serves to make the suspense of the book's final portions sharper, as cop and criminal race to see who gets to the nun first, and Kerrigan's resolution is shocking and, to me at least, unexpected, so the book is plot-driven. But much of the book's drama and pathos come from moral decisions the characters make or have made. Does that make the book character-driven, or is it part of the plot?

Except that the novel is leavened with brief but effective references to hardships endured by ordinary Dubliners because of the misdeeds of the country's bankers. So the setting is a character.

Except that— Except that I should thank God that, as quickly as The Rage moves, I have seen no references to it as pacy.

What critical catchphrases and buzz words drive you nuts?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , ,

18 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Aristotle, writing about drama in The Poetics, argued that the essential elements of a composition--in order of importance--are plot, character, theme, diction, melody, and spectacle.

If this formulation can be applicable to prose fiction, then plot dominates, character(ization) comes in second, and spectacle (setting) comes in at the end of the list.

I would argue that too many writers today have forgotten about the importance also of diction (i.e., effective use of language) and melody (i.e., effective tempo in the narrative).

I would also argue that too many publishers, agents, and writers now seem too interested in character (especially with the vogue of vampires, guilt-wracked protagonists, and anti-terrorism zealots).

Perhaps it is because I am now rereading both Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises that I yearn for good, old-fashioned story-telling in which all the elements work together seamlessly.

(Please pardon the unavoidable adverb at the end!)

March 14, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Oops! I had meant to say "elements of a dramatic composition" when commenting upon Aristotle.

I wonder what the Greek is for mea culpa?

March 14, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., your argument about diction and melody -- good writing, that is -- is no argument at all, it's a statement of fact. I can attest to this from professional experience. I expect part of the reason no one expresses concern about bad writing by professional writers these days is that everyone thinks he or she can write.

You're certainly correct about excessive oncern with character, especially in series crime fiction. That's one reason I liked The Rage so much. Kerrigan did not just give his characters a set of interesting traits and circumstances, he gave them something to do.

Here’s a post I once made about a passage in the Poetics that I say explains the appeal of much crime fiction. Abd it's nice to see you're not as implacably opposed to adverbs as you used to think you were.

March 14, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

ήμαρτο

March 14, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Well, that is all Greek to me.

I could have said hamartia instead of mea culpa, which is best translated as "missing the mark" rather than "tragic flaw." After all, even the best of people will miss the mark now and then, but not all of us are flawed.

The anti-robot word is "kenedyi"--which sounds like a Greek version of Kennedy. Now that is weird, especially in the shadow of writing about flaws and misses.

March 14, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

ήμαρτο = Hemarto; that is, "I screwed up." So you're right!

The Kennedys did indeed have an active fondness for misses: Miss Monroe, Miss Gardner, et al.

March 14, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Most of us are pretty flawed though, too.

Thanks for pointing out this whole character driven plot driven malarkey. I suspect I've been giving this cant undue reverence...ob

March 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if "character-driven" and "plot-driven" are any more or less malarkey than any other marketing shorthand. But I wonder if the shorthand encourages composition and publication of books that rely excessively on either character or plot.

March 15, 2013  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

It sounds to me like Kerrigan manages an admirable balance between both! Adding to my reading list ...

March 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He's good. I may go back and read his earlier novels now.

March 15, 2013  
Blogger Gavin said...

I think the terms are valid, even if not for all fiction.

Ulysses, for example, is character-driven (also language-driven, but that's a separate issue). Nobody reads it because they want to find out how Bloom will act at the funeral. Mrs. Dalloway is like that, too.

On the other end of the scale, the characters in Agatha Christie often don't even act in ways that make sense (to me, at least). Their job is to move around the board, putting the pieces in place for the mysterious puzzle that Christie has set up -- they're often ciphers.

Of course, there are a lot of novels in the spectrum between -- I'm just reading Denise Mina's Slip of the Knife, which is really finely balanced between plot and character. But I think there are a lot of novels which either sacrifice a bit of character plausibility to move the plot on or which let the plot meander a bit too much to let you see another side of a character.

March 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So maybe "character-driven" and "plot-driven," as applied to crime fiction, are leftovers from when it was novel for a crime story to be more than a puzzle. Maybe I roll my eyes at the terms for the same reason that I do at the occasional declarations I've seen in recent years that the detective story is no longer just a whodunnit: It's no longer news, so calling a crime novel "character-driven" seems like a belated an unnecessary plea for respectability.

I think, too, that R.T. may be right, that publishers and authors of crime fiction have now swung too far the other way and, in their eagerness to create deep characters, have forgotten how to tell stories. I have not read Denise Mina, but it looks if you react to her writing much the same way I did to Gene Kerrigan's.

March 15, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I haven't read any Gene Kerrigan novels yet, although I've always enjoyed his journalistic work since the early 80's heyday of Vincent Browne's 'Magill'.
But I balk at the reference to "misdeeds of the country's bankers". Its just a complete turn-off for me, fiction-wise.

I'm currently wallowing in Woolrich's 'Waltz Into Darkness', which may well be guilty of the charge of being 'overlong', but I'm loving every stretched-out syllable.
It might just be the most purely enjoyable Woolrich I've read, where he's just revelling in the story-telling art, and not caring about pacing, or editors, or other such trifling, inconsequential details.

And when I'm finished I'll watch Truffaut's marvellous film adaptation, 'Mississippi Mermaid'

March 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I may have misrepresented Kerrigan. The novel is not a polemic against banks and bankers, but popular anger at both is an undertone. So you'll get passages such as:

"...three mid-level bankers had been assaulted by members of the public and the son of a leading property developer was kicked senseless after leaving a nightclub. Most worrying of all, the former chief executive of another bank returned from a business trip to Chicago to find two bullet holes in the front window of his mansion."

So perhaps I should have written "hardships endured by ordinary Dubliners after the financial crash and popular anger at bankers."

Thans for the mention of Magill. I didn't know much about Irish journalists except that Gene Kerrigan was one.

March 17, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

So what I'm hearing, TCK, is that 'banker-driven' doesn't work for you.

Thanks for the rec of the Woolrich book.

Peter, writers probably should not crave respectability as much as they do, but I suppose it can't be helped.

March 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read James Sallis' Drive a while back. It was car-driven.

March 17, 2013  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"But I balk at the reference to "misdeeds of the country's bankers". Its just a complete turn-off for me, fiction-wise."

Ditto, TCK. So tiresome. Now, if the collusion between banks, bankers, and government apparatchiks and impiegati forms the subtext, I'm more likely to engage.

Just finished reading Peter Temple's In the Evil Day. Bad guys are the Americans, natch, and especially Republicans, double natch. Again, tiresome.

And make it horse-driven for me any day. Standardbreds rock!

March 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, once again I should say the blams is mine, not Kerrigan's. He's not blaming banks, he's writing that ordinary Irish peeople blamed banks. So blame the people or blame me, but don't blame the author.

Sure, out there in balmy California, it's easy to tell we frozen Northeasterns to get outside and take horses. Do they come with heating?

March 18, 2013  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home