Plot versus Character by Betty Webb

betty_authorAs most of my Lena Jones fans know, I not only write books but I teach creative writing. In my classes, I stress that in a mystery series, character is far more important than plot. That’s not to denigrate a good plot, you understand, because without good plotting that takes readers to unexpected places, we’d have a pretty boring book.

 

But when we think back on our favorite mystery series, what stays with us – the plot or the detective? Or to put it another way, when we go to the bookstore do we ask the clerk for the new “kidnap book” or the new “serial killer book” or do we ask for the new “Inspector Banks,” or the new “Dave Robicheaux”? And, yes, we might even ask for the new “Peter Robinson” or the new “James Lee Burke.”

 

Because in almost every instance, we identify the book by the lead character or the author — by human beings, not devices.

 

Creative writing teachers love to say, “Character is plot, plot is character,” and that’s because the character’s nature drives all the action. In the case of my Lena Jones mysteries Desert-Rage-cover(especially my new DESERT RAGE), the fact that Lena was raised in a series of foster homes and doesn’t know who her parents are makes her both tough and vulnerable at the same time. Dangerous situations that would cause the average person to head for the hills simply make Lena unholster her gun. But events that the average person would shrug off haunt Lena endlessly. Therefore, maddened with rage or sorrow, Lena initiates a course of action that impacts on everyone else in the book.

 

My creative writing students delight in arguing with me about this character-versus-plot concept. They bring up book after book heavy with high-octane plots and crazy-making twists. Many of them love to cite Clive Cussler’s action-heavy “Dirk Pitt” novels as examples. Then, when I ask them who the main character is, they look at me like I’m crazy and answer, “Dirk Pitt, of course.” Which proves my point.

 

No matter the book’s setting, whether the frigid Arctic, the middle of the Atlantic, the dunes of the Sahara, or high in the Andes, the super-curious, hyper-determined Dirk Pitt is always to be found fighting, shooting, and stabbing his way out of whatever horrible situation he’s thrust into. Think about that for a moment. If Dirk Pitt was a married, mild-mannered schoolteacher and Boy Scout leader, he wouldn’t be out there fighting pirates and terrorists, would he? Instead, Cussler paints Pitt as the almost fearless go-to guy when sunken ships or lost treasure or buried cities need to be found.

 

You’ll notice I said almost fearless. That’s because Cussler doesn’t write Dirk Pitt as an invulnerable superhero – he writes Pitt as a human being, encumbered by all the flaws and weaknesses humans are heir to.  And remember — human beings drive a series.

 

We may not always be able to remember the intricacies of plot in a particular series, but we never forget the main protagonist. Just think of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Leaphorn and Chee, Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawski, Lord Peter Wimsey, Anna Pigeon, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, Joanna Brady…

 

Because character is plot, and plot is character.

x x x

 

To read the first chapter of Betty Webb’s “Desert Rage,” go to

www.bettywebb-mystery.com

 

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4 thoughts on “Plot versus Character by Betty Webb

  1. EARL STAGGS says:

    Can’t disagree with your logic, Betty. I look for both character and plot. A good character will draw me into a story, but only a good plot will keep me there. My biggest complaint is when an author develops an engaging character but then delivers a humdrum plot. All the best to you.

  2. susanjtweit says:

    Great point, Betty! Thanks for the clear and engaging illustrations. I never remember all the plot twists in a mystery or thriller, though I enjoy them. It’s the well-drawn and deeply human characters, like your Lena Jones, that draw me back again and again.

  3. Joan Curtis says:

    Hi Betty. I agree that characters are what readers thrive on. But, I also agree that there must be a story–a good plot. Writers of literary fiction often forget the plot in place of character. That bores me. I need both and I look for both in my reading life. But, I must say, I will follow Richard Jury anywhere. Even tho’ the last Martha Grimes books have been short on plot, I keep reading them because I love the characters. Oh well. . .

  4. Thanks for putting it so well, Betty. And, I have put up with some pretty draggy plots–usually in older novels simply because I like the characters. (Peter Wimsey in “Strong Poison” for example.

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