10 October 2022

They came for the plot, and stayed for the characters.



Some things are essential, yet not of the first order of importance.  You need to get paid for your work, but generally, people choose a type of work and stick with it for less tangible reasons than compensation.  A functioning cardio-vascular system is pretty handy, if you want to survive, but most of us concentrate on the life of our minds, and emotions.

Likewise, a book needs a good plot.  I’d argue that, in the mystery world, it’s as important as a beating heart.  Yet for me, the characters are the most valuable return on a reader’s investment.  Characters capture our attention, hijack our feelings and infect our memories. 

Starting with the protagonist.  A protagonist ushers people into the most intimate, and deceptive, corridors of a human being’s mind.  First person, third, or whatever, the reader is invited to tag along with an individual’s mental process, her ruminations, flights of mental chaos, her cold calculations.  The reader is a parasite feeding off an alien brain, and thus escaping ones own.  (I mean this in only the best way, not excepting vampire books, of which I’ve read exactly zero.)

Though the transaction is also observational.  The reader sees other people through the protagonist’s lens, who selects which qualities the other folks in the play expose, and which to ignore.  That’s why capable writers suggest you don’t write “He had a full head of brown hair and green eyes, and had a funny look on his face,” but rather, “He looked like he’d just swallowed a poisonous fish and was almost happy about it.”

I consumed a lot of door-stop popular novels in my youth, since they kept showing up in our house as the result of my mother’s feverish compulsion to keep pace with the Book of the Month Club.  To wit, James Michener, Leon Uris, Arthur Hailey, Irving Wallace – masters of engaging plots, characters made of mud and straw.  It’s not easy to write these books, and I’m glad they at least kept big publishing in business, but can you name a single compelling character emerging from all that tonnage of spilled ink and paper pulp? 

Meanwhile, my mother and I both tackled Ulysses.  What’s the plot?  Guy gets up in the morning and wanders around Dublin for a day, sees a few things and thinks about his life.  No one, despite heroic efforts and warehouses full of doctoral dissertations, has fully dissected the richness of this character, and side characters along for the ride, which is why Ulysses will be forever consumed and Arthur Hailey is a forgotten name. 

If you want to write fictional characters of any kind, the good news is you don’t have to invent all that much.  We all live in a deep sea of human experience.  Everywhere you look are brilliant characters.  Your crabby sister, muscular palates instructor (the one with the lisp), retired special ops commando with a house full of cats, earnest supervisor of public works, cross-dressing carpet salesperson, too-chipper young bank teller, crew-cut lawn-cutter heading for the Marines, sociopathic next-door neighbor (also with a house full of cats) – the world’s bursting with them.  You just have to write it down.

Millions love mysteries, initially because they’re literary puzzle games.  But at the end of the day, people are mostly interested in other people.  The wonderful thing about mysteries is they put people we recognize into impossible situations.  We’re allowed see how they endure extreme circumstances, how they react and behave often in ways that exceed their apparent capabilities.  Mysteries are the ultimate vicarious thrill ride.

It's one of the reasons I’m so fond of mysteries and thrillers.  Humans stress-tested to their limits, revealing deep wherewithal, surprising weakness and trials of moral fortitude.    





  1. Welcome aboard, Scott!

    As a kid, I loved mystery plots, especially Doyle, Christie, and Hammett, but as an adult, plots tend to fade while I remember characters. A rare exception is Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, which is ingenious.

    I recall liking Topaz and QB-VII, but they were long ago and far away, and I don’t recall a lot except the verdict in QB-VII. But yeah, the novels of the era were ponderous and pompous.

    >“He looked like he’d just swallowed a poisonous fish and was almost happy about it.”

    “What? Wait! That’s a trick statement,” said Wolfe, dipping a wafer-thin slice of fugu into myoga-ponzu sauce. He popped it into his mouth, closed his eyes, and smiled happily.

    Scott, thanks for joining us!

  2. Great post, Chris. And I agree that characters run the machine. Everyone talks about "the next Harry Bosch/Sam Acquillo/Will Trent book," but who refers to "that murder mystery set in LA?" That's why agents like an author who approaches them with a potential SERIES; it's easier to build readership with that appealing character.

    And, yes, voyeurs that we are, we love going inside someone else's head to check out the furniture. I sometimes think of mysterys stories as what Freud called "Wish fulfillment," maybe especially when we watch the villain doing nasty things we wouldn't dare, even when our neighbor's dog continues to bark outside our window at 3 AM.

    Love the poisonous fish line, too.

    Hey Leigh, who is Scott? ;-)

  3. Love the post, Chris. Yes, characters are key. I read Nero Wolfe, Maigret, Brunetti (and many more) far more for the characters than the plot, although I always admire a good plot. And I think mysteries supply wish fulfillment both for those of us who have considered where we'd bury that body and also those of us who desperately want to see justice done in a very dodgy world. It's kind of a win-win.

  4. Leigh - Presumed Innocent is my favorite book, period. It's got it all.

  5. "The reader is a parasite feeding off an alien brain, and thus escaping ones own. "
    I've never thought of it that way before, but very well said, and an intriguing visual. :-)

  6. I wanted to slap Leopold from time to time. A critic wrote something about Joyce foregrounding the process of thinking, but the man also foregrounded the process of drinking. But then came Molly and all was well with the world.

  7. Great post! And the mysteries with authentic well-developed characters often are the ones that can be categorized as "literary mysteries."

  8. A strong protagonist is everything! It's a pleasure to witness the world through another person's eyes--without having to stumble across any dead bodies yourself. You're so right in saying that mystery is "the ultimate vicarious thrill ride."

    The only drawback to reading mystery is realizing how boring day-to-day life is (won't someone get murdered, already?) But then imagination kicks in. As you say, the world is full of brilliant characters. And they must surely have some terrible secrets!


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