Plot Vs. Character– Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrumble!

I’ve been reading up on plot for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I’m used to writing short stories where characters drive the plot. Short stories tend towards navelgazery– not in a bad way, but that’s just how shorts often go. I’m trying to write a novel, though, and I need something more.

The second reason is that I’m trying to write a genre novel at the moment. Perhaps that should have been my first reason? But anyway, genre fiction does rely more on plot to hook the reader, then lead them by the nostrils through the rest of the chapters. In no way am I abandoning characterization for the cheap thrills of plotplotplot. Still, I’m trying to write a freaking mystery, here. There has to be a plot. That’s just how mysteries roll.

Ages ago, I mean AGES, I read a slender little volume by Georges Polti. I considered liberating it from the CSUF library. That’s how much I liked it. Of course, I considered liberating many books from the library, and never did. My point is, though, that my fascination with categorizing plots is not a new one.

This isn’t by Polti, but it’s adapted from his work, which was rather dated. This one is formatted in a much more useful way. Hey, I guess it’s one of the few instances in which the remake of something is better than the original! I shouldn’t dis Polti, though. I don’t mean to. It’s just that this version is really accessible. I’d like to own both versions, actually.

The more I read up on plots, though, the more I come to the conclusion that plots aren’t everything. If you read template after template, sure, you can see patterns (recognize the templates from a mile away) but you (okay, I) can’t help but to imagine characters peopling these plots.

Eventually, I become aware that my characters– or one in particular– cannot shoulder the weight of a mystery plot. This is so disheartening, because then I’m back to square one– when I’d thought I was well beyond it. Like, on square two.

I’ve come to the realization that the problematic character is too perfect. He needs to be smudged up.

When I was little, if somebody told me what a cute little girl I was, or if my grandmother for her own reasons thought I was particularly cute on any given day, she would pretend she was spitting on me. “Peh, puh!” she’d say as she spat. Sometimes she’d lick her thumb and rub my forehead with it. Not until years later did I realize that there was a Greek logic behind this.

In myth, when mortals were too cocky about their brains or beauty or good fortune, the gods would smite them. “So, you think you’re gorgeous, huh? I’ll show you!” and kaboom! Lightning strikes and that gorgeous shepherd is a little pile of ashes on a hillside, and all of his sheep are confused.

In the Greek culture, then, it became customary to schmutz up cute babies so they wouldn’t be cursed. That’s what my grandmother was doing– schmutzing me up to ward off bad luck, to make sure the gods continued to look kindly upon me.

What are readers if not gods, of a sort? We pick up a world in a book, gaze through it critically, then either gaze some more or toss it aside. How callous we are, as readers! Just go on io9 to read these book club comments, if you don’t get my drift. Sure, some of the comments are there in the good spirit of debate and pondering, but many of them are extremely callous. And you know the worst offenders– I’m sure they think they’re just being honest– are probably just as critical of themselves as they are whatever they happen to be reading. I digress. In a nutshell, the commenters are Greek gods, ready to toss the book aside, smite it, become a patron saint, or whatever.

I need to schmutz up my character so that the boredom induced by his seeming perfection doesn’t cause the Commenter Gods to smite him and toss my mystery aside. Luckily, that Bret Anthony Johnston book addresses just such an issue. This weekend, I’m schmutzing!


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