It’s winter here in the Berkshires. It seems it’s always winter here in the Berkshires, but that’s not true. Spring creeps out of its hole sometime in May, sees its shadow, then flees, guaranteeing us 6 more feet of snow. It’s the time of year when, among other things such as “are you sure the manuscript is that overdue,” a writer’s thoughts turn to stew (which is considerably better than having them turn to mush).
Since some of you might be new to stew—creating, not eating—here’s an old secret for proper preparation: make it thick. That way even if it's not a gourmet's delight, it'll be satisfying. Later on, when you've had some practice in stewing, you can add things to give it that certain something and take it to a higher level.
I rediscovered that “secret” at last year’s Thrillerfest in Manhattan when, over beers with some new found friends, the discussion turned to: Thrillers—plot-driven versus character-driven. Actually the discussion may have turned to: New York Baseball—Met-driven or Yankee-driven. Things were, and still are a little hazy. (I did mention that we were discussing things over beers, right?) But I'm pretty sure it was whether, in thrillers, plot or character rules.
I vaguely remember coming down on the side of plot trumping character (almost) every time, basing my reasoning on stew. It seemed perfectly logical at the time—brilliant, really. Unfortunately, I only recall snippets of it. (I may have forgotten to note that we were having a few beers at the time).
Like stews, make thrillers thick (in a good sense) I believe I may have said, so that they satisfy readers. Seems to me one of my companions asked how you thicken them, to which I responded “why with plot, of course.” I then went on to explain that thriller readers want plot. They want excitement. They want tremendous risks. Character? Character be damned! Come on—grab some safety scissors and a sheet of construction paper and within 10 minutes you can create characters as good if not better than those found in many successful thrillers.
I may have also said—but don’t hold me to it—that characters in thrillers can be superficial. If fact, it's often essential that they be superficial, lest they interfere with the plot. Readers don't need to have an intimate relationship with characters in a thriller. Many don't want one. What readers do need is to be infatuated with characters in a thriller. Not knowing much about them only increases the intrigue.
Now I do definitely remember one of my table mates asking whether thriller writers who say their books are driven by character are they simply pulling a lot of legs. I remember that because his the delicious cliché offered so many opportunities for witty retorts of all sorts. Alas, mine was a pedestrian “maybe.” There are also thriller writers who believe their books are character-driven, while having no concept of what a well-rounded character really is.
And then there are those thriller writers who are motivated by LC—Literary Correctness—to value character above plot. A very few may even manifest symptoms of acute newyorkermagazeosis, which the DSM-IV describes as the tendency to explain all aspects of fiction in terms of character while denying the existence of any sort of plot beyond "he said, she said."
Does this mean there aren’t thrillers where the characters are well-developed and yet the plot doesn't suffer? Sure there are, but think about it. Usually these characters appear in a series and have become more developed over the course of several books. Eventually memories blur and readers tend to believe that these characters were completely fleshed out right from the start.
By contrast, take a look at new characters in a series, who are usually antagonists. They remain our old, friendly paper constructs in contrast to the recurring protagonist(s) now sculpted in marble. Should they become recurring antagonists, well that's another story (and another novel and another).
This idea of the primacy of plot is neither mine nor new. Aristotle was one of its first advocates and, like Plato, he has had his fair share of (literary) footnotes ever since. My friend and fellow writer Stanley Solomon donned his university professor hat (or is that mortar board?) and explained to me that “character-driven” fiction is a much more recent concept, which really got kick-started in the 19th century. It’s premised on the notion that while there are but a few dozen different plots (can you say Plot-o), the number of characters is unlimited. The flaw in the ointment is that the permutation of combined plots is also unlimited.
Since Thrillerfest I’ve revisited the plot/character question a few times and picked up some more stew tips. These are general: cooks/authors have their own individual recipes, but all revolve around the basics. For example, besides thickness, you need to know when to add and remove ingredients. With thrillers, as with stews, timing is everything.
Here’s another: simmer, simmer, simmer. Sure, occasionally your mixture may need to come to a brief boil, but after that—simmer, simmer, simmer. And, like stew, there’s a big difference between a thriller that’s a pot-simmerer and a thriller that’s a potboiler!
And now the snow’s falling and my stomach's growling.
Put on the pot . . .
It's time to plot!
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Readers, what do you think? Are thrillers driven more by plot or character? Both?
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Gary Kriss’s THE ZODIAC DECEPTION, about a con artist who having learned the art of illusion from Houdini is recruited by the OSS to use his skills for the ultimate deception: infiltrate the Nazi Occult Bureau and persuade Himmler to plot the assassination of Hitler, and its prequel, THE HOUDINI KILLER, will be published by TOR/Forge in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He has been writer for longer than he cares to remember, including a respectable stint with THE NEW YORK TIMES. When not involuntarily locked in a Berkshire Mountain attic, Kriss spends an inordinate amount of time trying not to embarrass his lovely minister wife, Pat, and otherwise exists solely to make her, his publisher, his editor, his agents, his dog and his cats proud of him. He still holds out hope that he can win over the dog. For more information, please visit Gary at http://garykriss.blogspot.com.