Tuesday, September 21, 2010

For a Good Read, Let the Characters Shape The Plot

By Nancy Means Wright

Conflict, suspense, humor, plot, setting, point of view, juicy suspects, pain-in-the-butt adversaries and great writing—all these elements enter the mix for a first class mystery. But the most important of these, I insist, is character. Create a charismatic, dynamic character as protagonist, let the story unfold through his or her flaw, quirk or passion, and you’re off to a flying start!  

In Sophocles’ fifth century B.C.’s Oedipus the King, one of our earliest “mysteries,” it’s the latter’s hubris, and his blind passion to find a killer and rid Thebes of a plague, that leads him to question folk, one by one: Come here…You must answer everything I ask! until he discovers that he himself killed his father and slept with his mother.  Centuries later in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, it’s Montresor’s obsessive desire for revenge—since na├»ve Fortunato “ventured on insult”—that leads the hapless victim down into the damp bowels of the family vaults and doesn’t let go until the last trembly jingle of bells. And no detectives in the story—just the two unforgettable characters.

In 1868, Wilkie Collins set out in his novels “to trace the influence of character on circumstance,” and let his characters “direct the course” of events. In The Moonstone, for instance, the unrequited love of plain, crippled Rosanna for Franklin, and then Rachel’s stubborn silence about something traumatic she’d seen on the night of the diamond’s disappearance, help in large measure to shape the plot.     

More recently, in Case Histories, Kate Atkinson’s laid-back detective Jackson Brodie reluctantly tries to solve three old murders. The nonlinear plot is spun through several points of view, and the story leaps in and out of time and the characters’ minds. To me the dead bodies are less significant than the three-dimensional characters whom she portrays with humor, humanity, and surprise. The novel is a brilliantly written subversion of the detective-thriller.

As for this humble writer, I can’t help but have my sleuth “direct the course” of the novel. My protagonist is real life, 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (her daughter wrote Frankenstein). A conflicted woman who wanted “to live independent or not at all” but who longed for a grand romantic passion, she was both impulsive and rebellious. She once kidnapped her sister from an abusive husband, and ordered a reluctant English sea captain to pick up a boatload of drowning French sailors. I thought she’d make a credible sleuth, and much of what happens in Midnight Fires, the first in my series, stems from her intrepid nature.

So I say: choose a flawed, but passionate character, and let the rumpus begin!


Nancy Means Wright has published 15 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. A longtime teacher, actress-director, Bread Loaf Scholar for a first novel, Wright lives with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats on a dirt road in the environs of Middlebury, Vermont. Please visit her web site:  ww.nancymeanswright.com


Suzanne said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post, Nancy. Readers invest more in a book that's strong on character. They're looking for that emotional hit, and they don't get it from books with shallow characters, even if the books are well-plotted.

Suzanne Adair

Ramona said...

An intrepid nature is an excellent description for both a character and the courageous person who takes on writing a mystery.

So many good thoughts here. Thanks for sharing them.

Nancy Means Wright said...

Thanks so much, Lorraine, for printing my blog, and Suzanne and Ramona for your excellent comments. I love the thought of Suzanne's "emotional hit," and Ramona's mention of "the courageous person who takes on writing a mystery." Yes, we all need a good measure of courage to try and get it right! (Nancy)

Hemmie said...

This was an excellent read and fitted well with my writing philosophy. I know my protagonist, but as the pages advance, she takes over in her quirky way and influences the characters around her to respond sponateously. I love it when the writing gets into that mode.

Laura Pauling said...

Thanks. Great post. And an awesome reminder as I set out to plot a mystery!

Julie Musil said...

Excellent post! Sometimes I get too caught up in plot and forget about my poor character trying to do her thing.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great post! I totally agree. It's the character that drives the plot. Put the wrong person in the same situation and you may have nothing.