Thursday, July 12, 2012

All About the Character, Baby.

by Alan

As a reader what comes first, character, plot, setting?

Well, obviously, all three are fundamental building blocks of a novel, so to disregard any of them will result in a story that is less than structurally sound. But…

I’m not a “setting” guy. There, I said it.

phone boothI know many people (hi, Tracy!) choose books based primarily on the setting (quaint English village, Southern plantation, Hooters restaurant), but I’m not one of them. A story could take place in a phone booth (remember those?) and if it has interesting characters and a driving plot, I’ll be happy.

Now, between character and plot, which is most important to me? Again, I consider both to be vital components of a story well told. But I’d have to give the slight edge to character. You see, it’s the characters who stick with me long after I’ve finished the book.

I’m a big fan of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. I can tell you what clothes he wears, where he prefers to go for drinks, and where he lives. I can also tell you the size of the bites of food his girlfriend Susan Silverman eats (microscopic). For the life of me, however, I couldn’t tell you the plot of any particular Spenser book (Wait, wait. Somebody goes missing. Spenser snoops around, angering the people he talks to. Then he finds the missing person, but refuses, at first, to send him/her back. Finally, all are reunited.)

Now, while I read them, the plots keep me following along, but it’s the characters I remember: Spenser, Hawk, Susan, Belson, Quirk, Rita from the law firm, Henry from the gym, and all the thugs and semi-thugs Spenser deals with.

Ditto for Jack Reacher. Same for Harry Bosch. Likewise for Lucas Davenport (I only remember snatches of the plots from the “Prey” books. And the setting, wasn’t it cold? Some northern state starting with M—Michigan or Minnesota or Maine or Manitoba?).

Give me a compelling character and I’ll follow him or her anywhere, through any dire situation.

Just don’t ask me to remember the details about the setting or the plot.


Polly Iyer said...

Oh, I so agree. As a reader and writer it has always been the characters that drive everything else. Not only lead characters but secondary characters too. Interesting you should name characters I'm familiar with. We must have the same reading tastes. I will add Will Trent, Karin Slaughter's very damaged but fascinating character.

Nancy said...

I'm also mainly a character appreciator. But, I like interesting places, as well. I think, if I were a writer, that plots would be hard to come up with if it were a series, especially, while characters would continue to grow and flesh out.
I have Diamonds for the Dead right next to me. I started reading it late last night. I'm looking forward to getting back into it.

Meredith Cole said...

I agree too, Alan! I definitely remember the characters more than plot. But I'm not sure how interested I would be in the phone booth thriller... I love reading about new places, too.

Alan Orloff said...

Polly - Yes, we must have the same exquisite reading tastes!

Nancy - I do like stories set in certain places, too. I went through a science fiction phase where every book I read took place in space. Thanks for picking up DIAMONDS!

Meredith - Didn't they make a movie that took place in a phone booth?

lil Gluckstern said...

I'm with you on character being the thing that attracts me to a book, and keeps me reading a series. There are books where the setting, and the weather become so much a part of the action that they feel like characters. Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight books are set on Michigan's Upper Peninsula where the weather affects so much of what he does. Interesting places are a gift to this arm chair traveler as well. It's interesting to me that the plot which engages me is last on the list of what I remember.

Alan Orloff said...

lil - You know, I don't generally choose a book for its setting, but I find that I'm like you, I do remember settings better than I remember plots. Although I guess it's easier to remember "Boston" than it is to remember fifty different twists and turns.

k said...

I tend to remember the plots. I fall in love with the characters I write about, but when it comes to reading I can go back years and tell you the basic plot or different scenes in books I've read.