Thursday, December 2, 2010

Personality and Plot

So I don't know if y'all KNOW this or not, but I am cheap in the best of times, and BROKE at the moment so I do my reading on a budget. Fortunately, I live in a town where I actually can do most of my reading for FREE. There are boxes of books left on curbs with 'free' signs. Heck, even our LIBRARY gives away free books.

Since I started writing mystery, I've kept my eyes open for some of the names that are prolific and widely read, but on the list of freebies, I am beginning to suspect it is the tail end that has survived. Two recent reads have taught me some big lessons for what I like and don't like, and it's fairly funny, because they are opposites.

Personality WIN

My neighbor said she loved Janet Evanovich, and I hadn't read any, so I picked up TWO (both are Stephanie Plum books, which I now know are Cozies, though I've only read Plum Lucky thus far). I LIKE Stephanie... mostly I like that she seems to have a collection of attractive male hoodlums helping her out. I have a little trouble with the racially stereotyped sidekick (finding it in poor taste to have the only black person in the book an ex-hooker) but I LIKED Lula's personality (overshot self confidence that somehow actually WORKS except when it doesn't). I maybe could even get along with the guy who thinks he's a leprechaun and talks to horses. The man candy is well done--hot, varied, and just a little quirky.

Plot Fail

I just found it WAY too big of a stretch. Grandma finds a duffel bag of money, proceeds to start spending it, it was stolen in the first place (and the second) so both the original thief and the secondary thief are trying to get it back... but the parade of stupidity and poor decisions through this just strained my credibility too much.

I found myself alternately laughing at character stuff and rolling my eyes with 'I can't believe we are expected buy this as part of this story.'

Plot Win

Now this one I am only half through, and it DOES go a little slow at points, but the premise and set up are pretty good. Cop with a troubled daughter, so when the bad guy starts talking to her, her family doesn't believe 'the wizard' is real. There's been a student raped and murdered on a college campus. The Sheriff, up for reelection, keeps trying to paint it as a 'cult-killer' (so he will seem more impressive when it's solved), but the MC doesn't buy it (and as of where I am, neither do I)...

Personality FAIL

There is a cast of thousands, which normally I am fairly tolerant of, but of HONESTLY about 40 characters I've met, I only like 2, and NEITHER is the MC--or even really a regular (I like the psychiatrist and the campus head of security). I don't like Bill Corde (he's a dismissive ass IMHO and I just haven't found anything appealing). His wife is a shrew who keeps dismissing her daughter's problems as 'attention getting' when the girl is so obviously distressed... though I think what REALLY speaks of this personality problem is I don't even like HER! (she's 7 and he's made her unlikable). I mean I KNOW characters should have flaws, but to be nothing BUT flaws...

So I think overall, while what I WANT is BOTH—good characters AND a good plot, it's interesting to see the different things the two do for me. I think the characters were more fun to read, but the better plot is more deeply engaging... I keep thinking about it when I'm NOT reading.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You picked some really big names in the business, there!

Both writers are really prolific so maybe some of the failures in the characters/plot were due to the number of books they've been pushed to write? I always wonder about that effect on creativity and originality.

Hart Johnson said...

Elizabeth, I suspect with Plum Lucky that's the case. For Deever, this was an early one of his--1993--and it reminds me in some ways of Raymond Chandler--I think it is a guys book and guys LIKE 'asses'--think they're tough or something... and his depth of understanding of women is love (also like Chandler). I'll read another of both of them, because I DO know these are the odd stand-outs, though I suspect Deever may just be testosterone heavy for me.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I have two Jeffrey Deaver books and couldn't finish either one. Perhaps what Elizabeth said is true - after a while, they start producing 'name-brand' crap. Maybe crap is too harsh a word. Well, you get my meaning!

erica and christy said...

The latest New York Times best sellers I've bought (or borrowed - I'm cheap, too) were epic fails. I think I'll be sticking to "unknowns" for quite a while.

Old Kitty said...

These are like names I see on the bookshelves in shops and libraries but never really borrow/buy!! So thanks for these reviews! The thing I like about my beloved Terry Pratchett is that some of his plotlines are so spread thinly but he wins through all the time with the characters he creates. So I'm thinking maybe it's the characters I like more over plot! Hmm. I have to think about this more! Thanks for a very thoughtful post! take care

Colene Murphy said...

Wow. Those are big names. I haven't read either but that sounds like a big bummer that they failed in those ways! I'm more tolerant of a good plot and okay characters. Than the other way around.

LTM said...

plot + characters = not too much to ask.

but it's funny b/c Elizabeth touched on something hubs and I were discussing last night. (We were talking about Charlene Harris's stuff, the S. King, then JK Rowling--who he said was the only one who didn't lose it when pushed to write more.)

Hart Johnson said...

Alex-maybe you have a sensitive side! Then again, I'm really willing to guess he improved a lot as he went, as i've heard high praise.

Erica-interesting. The only best sellers I've read recently are the Dragon Tattoo series (which I think are underedited, but as the author was dead, I forgive them--they were good stories), Hunger Games (which was great) and the Book Thief (which was great)--oh, wait... Bad Things Happen was a best seller and I liked that too (though had a similarly unlikable MC)

Jenny-I still need to read some Terry Pratchet. He's come highly recommended.

Colene-I think that is me, too, though I DO want both!

Leigh-Yeah, Rowling was a stickler... then, she had a single, cohesive (very long) story that had to be done RIGHT--I've loved her integrity though. She wouldn't sell movie rights either, until they agreed ONLY the story that goes with the books... not some wacked out franchise where they just used the characters. She wanted to keep control on it and it REALLY paid off for her (eventually).

I haven't read Charlene Harris (I started one and hated it--the voice of Sookie Stackhouse made me insane) but I know she's popular. King though, i think is really hit and miss. The trouble is, even his misses sell, so after about The Stand, he's been able to publish the bad as well as the good.

Ketutar said...

"she's 7 and he's made her unlikable"


Anonymous said...

I need a GREAT plot, BUT if I don't like the characters I can't finish. I just finished a book last night that the ending made me HATE the heroine. Can we say 'selfish?' I won't mention who wrote the book, because she's HUGE in RWA, and I respect her. All I can say is I'm glad I didn't pay for the book (free at conference) because I threw it against the wall when I was done. Nothing is WORSE than investing time and effort into a book that has an AWFUL ending. Sure, she got her man in the end, but how she got him, I couldn't respect.

Arlee Bird said...

I buy way more books than I can really afford, but really now--what's more important, books or clothes? Wait-- I probably know your answer to that one.
Good review and a half.

Tossing It Out

Hart Johnson said...


Ciara-Oh, I hear you on endings. In fact I read very little romance at all because the FORMULA ending is one I hate (a man does NOT make a woman WHOLE--a woman makes herself whole and then maybe might find a good partner) But yeah, I hate an ending that makes me hate somebody I've invested in.

Lee-I totally agree books are more important than clothes! Though, erm... I suspect you know my clothing policy? teehee... I really would spend a lot on books if we had any left after bills.

Rusty Carl said...

I appreciate a tightly plotted story because I feel it can make up for a lot if the characters are weak or the prose is ugly.

On the other hand, a novel with great characters and weak story seem to annoy me more. Not that you've asked me to pick, but I'd probably go with a more compelling story.

I agree with the assessment of Stephen King. I love his short stories but some of his novels seem to lose cohesion near the climax. I believe he said before that if he has no idea of how the story end then surely the reader won't either.

I just finished an older book, The Pillars of the Earth, a few weeks ago and felt like that was a marvelous mix of plotting and characterization. Even if it was a bit slow in parts. It's now one of my favorites.

Hart Johnson said...

Rusty-Pillars of the Earth was on my favorites list for a LONG time! I loved it (though the sequel sort of blew it--too similar--without the freshness it fell flat). I do really delight in a tight plot, but I guess a 'pretty good' plot with great characters also pleases me a lot.

VR Barkowski said...

Great analysis, and yes, you absolutely deserve both plot and character!

As a reader, I want real characters and plausible plots. In other words, I'm not Evanovich's audience. I admire Deaver, but have never read any of his standalones. For me, character is most important. I will read a book with great characters and a weak plot. The reverse? Not a chance. Of course, I don't watch TV, either.

Jan Morrison said...

I would choose likeable or interesting characters over plot but if they have a really strong absolutely believable plot then the characters can be a bit less. But if the characters are great then I don't care if there is NO plot. I don't. But that's just me.

Shannon said...

It's always disappointing to get into a book, only to learn the plot is ridiculous or the characters aren't engaging. I'm with you - I need both to hold my interest.

Rachael Harrie said...

Interesting take on those books Hart, thanks for that :)

I really enjoyed Pillars of the Earth as well, so much so that I bought the sequel. Haven't read it yet - maybe it's best I leave it on the shelf... ;)


Southpaw said...

I love books that have both plot and character. I’ve seen it done. It can be done. You can do it too.

Adina West said...

I'm late commenting on this one but found the discussion interesting.

In favourite reads, I'd probably go with great characters first - but a really strong plot without strong characters could also hook me in.

Janet Evanovich has sold a great many books and the Stephanie Plum books definitely provide what I'd call an unchallenging read - but they sadly weren't for me. I did read one of the later ones in the series though, and perhaps there is more 'freshness' in the earlier titles.

Pillars of the Earth is an interesting story - Ken Follett already had a career writing thrillers and writing this one was a labour of love and genre shift...Apparently this title was also one of those slow-growers which didn't launch to much fanfare but readers loved it, and recommended it, and it continued to sell, and sell, and sell.