Monday, September 7, 2009

The Plot Thickens

The other day I read a book review that said nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important in a book than character. If you have compelling characters, the reviewer asserted, then you can do whatever you want with structure, with narrative, with plot, and the reader will come along willingly.

That's an interesting idea. It reminds me of what Anne Lamott wrote in her book "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life". (Yes, of course I have a shelf of books about writing. We are very meta here at the Artsy Homestead.) She writes:
...we want a sense that an important character, like a narrator, is reliable. We want to believe that a character is not playing games or being coy or manipulative, but is telling the truth to the best of his or her ability. (Unless a major characteristic of his or hers is coyness or manipulation or lying.) We do not wish to be crudely manipulated. Of course, we enter into a work of fiction to be manipulated, but in a pleasurable way. We want to be massaged by a masseur, not whapped by a carpet beater.
For Lamott, too, writing fiction is about character, first and foremost. Get the main character right and all the rest will fall into place.

I just finished reading The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. (The inside jacket blurb makes one of those annoying assertions so common in literature for teens, which seems to be pulled from a tabloid headline: Compelling Parallels to Today's World! Perhaps the copy writer thinks we are living in ancient Rome.) The Hunger Games is a book which is driven, for the most part, by plot. The main character, Katniss Everdeen, is one of two tributes sent from her district to the Capitol, where she will compete in the Hunger Games, a sort of odd virtual reality Survivor game where the last person alive wins untold riches. The trials and tribulations that accompany Katniss through the Games are the meat of the story, and character, while touched on briefly, is not the driving force.

Anne Lamott has more to say about character:
If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn't really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time. I could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for about an hour without needing much else to happen. Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds you attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, "Hey, I've got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma - wanna come along?" and you honestly can't think of anything in the world you'd rather do. By the same token, a boring or annoying person can offer to buy you an expensive dinner, followed by tickets to a great show, and in all honesty you'd rather stay home and watch the aspic set.

I need to say that, as much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, I would not drive to the dump in Petaluma with Katniss Everdeen.

So, having read both the excellent review that praises the art of characterization, and a novel which is all about plot and story and suspense, I am left wondering: which is better? I have read character-driven novels that changed my world (The Diviners, best Canadian novel of all time), but I can't think of a story-based novel that grabbed me in the same way, although many of them have diverted me for an afternoon or two. I suppose that one thing leads to another - I find it interesting that we are always, in all our interactions with other people, looking for stories. (Who are you? What do you do? Where do you come from? Tell me about yourself? These are all questions we ask when we first meet a stranger; these are all questions that beg for stories as answers.)

I suppose that the two things go hand in hand to a certain extent: once you know all the stories, then you can start to piece together character; and once you know character, all the stories make sense. And honestly, that's good enough for me.

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