Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Not Dead Yet

I’ve been thinking about characters lately. Mostly, I think, characters you can’t let go of, either as a writer or a reader. I think people differ on whether we get attached to characters and want to read book after book including the same ones, or whether we prefer to start fresh each time. I can definitely see the economy of it as a writer—you have flushed out a character who is vivid and reacts predictably and can be thrown into a new situation. It would be tempting to use them again and again. And then I think of Misery—the author so sick of his character that he kills her, only to have psycho fan go ballistic on him. I’m wondering if there are features that are different between people who prefer repeats, versus people who don’t really like them, both as readers and writers. I can get attached to characters, and love to read a series, though admittedly I lose my patience over the reintroduction of things I already know. I know it is so the book can stand alone, but it still annoys me. I’d like people to just read them in order so I wouldn’t be pestered with such things. In fact… maybe that is a future feature of electronic books—allowing the reader to select (read the prior, read but need reminders, and haven’t read) so that the book gives you the amount of history you need and not all that annoying repeat stuff. Enjoyment is limited though, to one long story that has been broken into books that fall in order. I’m Fresh I’m not a huge fan of reading a whole bunch of books about the same characters in different situations—my reason? I think it’s because I’m a character girl and want a character driven story, not a plot driven one. So either the first book is unsatisfying because I haven’t really gotten to know the character, or the second is repeat of stuff I know already—it is too plot oriented for my taste. I can tolerate two or three books, if the character has some life change (Maeve Binchy has an old woman she’s used a few times, but really shakes things up for her between—that works for me—probably because she successfully develops the brand new complimentary characters really well). Mysteries I can read a couple of, because the detailing is different enough, but I am still probably done after two. It’s funny, because I think publishers feel the opposite, so I don’t know if I am an anomaly as a reader, or if business decisions dictate that diminishing returns on something successful, is at least a surer bet than the unknown. I know it is less work (why else would we have endless movie sequels, typically of inferior quality—though not always). My writing approaches the same way. I’ve been asked if I will use my same characters again and my initial response was confusion. “What? Why would I use these characters? Their story is done.” (Though I do have a vague YA series in my head… a group of girls with a book a year, 8th grade through the end of high school. I think the ‘growing up’ part gives it that ‘life change, development’ piece I need for my character need.) Bring Out Your Dead! On the other hand… sometimes you have a really great character who wound up on the proverbial editing floor. CONFLUENCE has a rock band that once had 5 members. Now it has four. Is Josh, the hot red-headed bass player likely to turn up elsewhere? He might. I definitely can see an appeal to a hot red-headed bass player. He just didn’t have any substantive role in the book, so I eliminated him. So I am polling… what is your reading (and writing) preference? Repeats, or no (or qualified). And do you have ‘deal darlings’ that may just show up at some later date?


Cruella Collett said...

It is interesting to me that you put up plot-driven vs character-driven stories, because in my opinion the two go hand in hand. I cannot think of a single good book that doesn't incorporate both. The story needs to have a plot to function properly - the plot needs to "drive" the book; but without characters that also are dynamic and occasionally take the wheel, the story just doesn't do it for me.
If forced to make a choice, though, I agree that characters are more important to my perception of a story than the plot is. I can like a book with an "average" plot if it has great characters. I will hate a book with a great plot if its characters are plain, dull or annoying.

As for the repeat-thing, I'm cyclical. There are certain types of characters I'll always come back to, both as a writer and a reader (I've recently identified one of them as "the dysfunctional male" - don't know why that is a continuing fascination with me). Then every now and then I take a detour from the cycle and spend some time with different types of characters. Then I go back into habit (clever children is another favourite type).
I more often than not prefer the returning characters to be "types" rather than actual characters, though. I can read series, but I agree with you on the annoying aspects of it. (Once again JKR is a reference to where that is done subtle enouugh and cleverly enough to please me.)
What I really like, though, is when an author lets characters from earlier books play smaller parts in a story. Like Carlos Ruiz Zafón does in "The Angel's Game".

Finally, on returning to unused characters - I haven't ever had the opportunity. I can imagine, however, that I often would find the character so tied to the setting he/she was originally put that it would be hard to transfer that into a new story (unless one does as the previously mentioned Zafón). Then again, so far too many characters have not been a problem of mine. For someone who is not a fan of the genre, I *think* a lot like a short-story writer when I write.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I’ve never been much of a serial reader, so, repeat characters were never a problem for me. I have done some, and, of course, I very much liked the Harry Potter characters. So, while I don’t have a big serial background, I don’t think it would be a problem. What I think I’d have more issue with is writing serials. It would be like the same book over and over. My ideal would be to write something vastly different each time out. That’s a challenge and stretches you as a writer…I think, anyway.

Best Regards, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Joris said...

Just on a side-note, how can you have a rock group without bass?

But to get on to the main show, recurring characters. When I look at the fiction I read for fun (and damn, come to think of it, it has seriously plummeted over the past five years -- virtually exclusively non-fiction now) I tend to read series -- Harry Potter, Tolkien, PO'B come to mind. So from that, logically, should follow that I like recurring characters, doesn't it? But I'm not quite sure that's it, I tend to read series mostly because I like the stories and have main characters I like (mostly cynics, for that matter). There's a few books I've bought because they had cameo's for character's I liked, but that was years ago.

Basically, I don't think I am representative for the (current) fiction audience, mostly because when I look around at my books (and my room is pretty much covered with them) I am hard pressed to find works of fiction I've read and liked, or even to find works of fiction at all...

LABANAN said...

I like both. When my head is tired from having to know stuff all day long I'm happy to dip into a series with one or two main protagonists. They don't have to be too complicated but they need to be likeable and interesting. I have a best friend that I've known for over thirty years. We are NEVER bored with each other because there is always something new to talk about, there is always a surprising bit of her that I didn't know about her etc... I like her and my partner because I don't need to get to know every reference point again. On the other hand, I love meeting new people - full of their own stories and ways. Depends so much on how much energy I have too. Luckily we don't have to choose one - we can have bothe.

LABANAN said...

bothe? I must be punch drunke!

Watery Tart said...

Grrrr…. Typed a lovely response and my computer froze and lost it.

Mari: I also need a plot--definitely. I guess though, I don’t like a story with no character growth or development. I really dislike anything that doesn’t have me in somebody’s head. But to be consistent in somebody’s head, their growth needs to be a long trajectory (over books that fall in order) or else I get tired of it. I don’t like a problem solved only to reveal they have a BIGGER problem in the next book--it cheapens the first… something like that. I CAN deal though, with detectives things, as there the demons can belong to killers or neighborhoods or some other thing, and I can live inside the same head for a few books (if they are quirky enough).

I can agree with a minor character from one book becoming major, but I guess when a major becomes minor, it feels campy--like the author is tooting their own horn. (Maybe Judith Kranz--a staple in my teen years, ruined that for me).

Galen--totally agree that writing I’d get bored! My YA planned series will have the same characters, but I change whose head I am in each book, and YA stuff is significantly shorter than my adult, so hopefully that will minimized the boredom!

Joris--the singer picked up the bass when Josh dropped out--never fear! And I also love series that have one long continuous plot. The example I have of it not working… Agatha Christie is FABULOUS, but by the third novel of any of her individual detectives, I’ve grown bored with the quirks. The books you named all have a first and last, and are really one long tale--THOSE I love (remember, I like 1000 page novels, given my drathers, and a series is the next best thing).

Labanan--I’m giggling because you’ve reminded my of an in-joke in my writer’s group--Frunk is what you are when you are DRUNK and sit down and type that you are drunk, because you inevitably hit a wrong key, so we refer to that as frunk posting.--And I agree, In my FRIENDS, it never gets old--their lives move along and change so it is always interesting, and there is always old common ground to fall back on. (and I love TV series that have predictability in new ways). It’s just the books… when I am reading, I like my brain to have more newness.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love the comfort and the easy aspect of reading series. That's because I'm busy and lazy...I have a difficult time keeping up with numerous characters and it's wonderful when I can start out a book knowing at least a few of them (PD James' series, Elizabeth George's, MC Beaton's._

That being said, I totally agree with you on getting annoyed by backstory. I think: "Make the readers go read the rest of your series first! No backstory!"

Writing it? MUCH easier. Your setting is in place. Your main characters are in place. You KNOW them. You put them in different situations and know instinctively how they'd react.

Again, on the other hand, I think of poor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He tried to kill Sherlock over the waterfall but the rabble-rousing fans made him bring Sherlock back from death (in a pre-soap opera fashion.)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Marjorie said...

I like both stories that are plot driven and those that are character driven. I think, though, that what makes a great book is when there is a balance. There must be at least ONE great character, and the plot has to be interesting. There can't be too much or too little dialogue. Jane Austin sometimes annoys me with her lack of dialogue and Stephanie Meyer annoys me frequently with too much.

Watery Tart said...

I didn't realize Sir Doyle tried to kill Sherlock! Thatis actuall fabulous--I wonder if it is what set Stephen King off on Misery.

Marjorie--I think too MUCH dialog is a sign of under editing (as you know, that is my #1 complaint with Meyer--#2 being a heroine wth no personality). CONFLUENCE had a TON of dialog in first draft, because when I think of the story, that is how charactes most naturally express themselves, but MANY of these conversations later get summarized.

Marjorie said...

You know, Tami. Those are probably my main complaints as well. The more I think about it the more I wish that Meyer would have given Bella a personality more like MY Isabella. She's a moody, defiant, imaginative, take charge kind of girl that would have made far more sense than the way Meyer's Bella was written.