OK, so I've read in several illustrious locations the admonition to put character above plot in order to write well; most of these locations have been aimed at 'serious' writers, and I find myself wondering exactly how this applies in the writing of crime/mystery fiction. I honestly can't see how a good (which, to me, means strongly and tightly plotted) mystery can be written without putting plot foremost. Comments?


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I was once told the difference between "literary" ficiton and "genre" ficiton was, in literary, the plot was driven by the characters, and in genre fiction, the characters are driven by the plot.

I've come to believe that's a little simplistic, but there's truth at the core. A lot--maybe most-of my favorite crime fiction begins with a couple of characters, and the author sees what happens. I think the key is, things are happening. Genre characters are routinely being driven by the plot because things keep happening. "Literary" fiction can get away with whatever the character wants to do, because hmaking the kinds of things happen that require reaction is optional in many cases. In genre fiction, things happen that demand a reaction all the time, so the characters are, to that extent, driven by the plot.

Which is more important? Neither alone creates a truly satisfying read, except in rare occasions. Even where plot rules, the best books take pains to make plausible the character action that provoked the plot point. In more character-driven stories, the characters created are the kinds of people who will make things happen, or, at least, will not sit idly by while things happen.
My dirty (not so) secret is that I don't really care very much about plot. I'm a lot more interested in what my characters are thinking and saying. In crime--especially whodunit-style mystery writing--it's important to give readers enough plot so that they finish the book feeling that there was, in fact, a mystery, and that it did get solved, sort of, in a reasonably satisfying way. But mystery plotting is really pretty generic if you strip it down to its essentials: somebody's dead, somebody did it, your hero pursues them. If you can handle a basic narrative arc (rising action/tension, climax, denouement), you can probably produce a serviceable mystery plot. The main plotting considerations for me are timeline (what happens when, in what sequence) and withheld information--what does the reader see/know, and what do you hold back?
I've been muttering about this topic elsewhere today or yesterday. Agatha Christie's mysteries were plot driven. So were those about Nero Wolfe. Even my much admired Robert Van Gulik wrote basically mystery plots. The oldfashioned mystery consists of a set of characters with motives and/or opportunity, a series of red herrings, some slight of hand, and a triumphant detective who, in the end, gathers the suspects and explains who really did it.
This scenario is utterly artificial and the characters in such a book are flat. We don't care much about the victim or any of the others. We don't even care about the detective. What we care about is if we can figure it out before he does.
I'm with Jon on this. I dislike plotting. It's a nasty chore. And I frequently change my mind.
If you want to sell a book to a publisher, you need to pitch them a riveting, can't-put-it-down plot.
If you can add to the story with wonderfully crafted, three-dimensional characters, then so much the better.
I think Ian Rankin's Rebus novels are a pretty good example of character-driven whodunit-style mystery writing.

I've only read Jon's first novel, High Season, so far but it fits the bill as well.

I don't know if it makes a difference if we're talking about stand-alone novels or series but I've noticed lately that even TV shows that once had almost no character development, like Law and Order, are now much more involved in the characters' personal lives.
Should we say Chandler's novels were plot driven or character driven? How about Hammett's? The point is this; to accentuate the one and belittle the other is probably short-changing the reader. I don't think the classic 'whodonight' plot-driven novels ala Christie are artificial. In real life a cop investigates a crime. Soimeone did it. Someone is trying to get away with it. Someone is lying.

I think there are as many readers who like the chase as much as there are those who prefer deep characterization. Why not give a the reader the best of both.
I think Chandler/Marlowe is almost entirely character driven. Some of his plots don't even make sense, and the bad guys frequently get away, but we don't care because Marlowe's voice is so compelling. The Christie scenario is pretty artificial--all the suspects gathered in the drawing room for the big reveal--but the point of those books is to engage the audience in putting together the puzzle. I just taught Murder On the Orient Express last semester, and it's striking how distant her third-person is; we rarely hear what Poirot is thinking. Contemporary crime is more about putting us in the shoes (and heads) of both cops (or sleuths) and criminals; a readers, we're interested in empathy more than puzzles these days. That said, one still wants the book to move along at a pretty swift pace.
Yeah, but stuff always *happens* to Marlowe. It's not like he's just an interesting guy sitting around on his butt talking to himself for the entire book. Also, we don't really spend a lot of time in Marlowe's head, in the same way that we do with contemporary detectives. I agree, though, that Chandler's plots seem a lot more organic in comparison to Agatha Christie's. Maybe that's part of the skill set involved -- laying out the plot/action in a way that meshes accurately with the character, rather than simply throwing him/her this way and that, to get all the plot points lined up correctly. How do the Chandlers of the world make it all look so easy...?

To quote Henry James: "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"
Ah, yes. Good quote. Of course, in a police procedural the incident tends to drive the character. It may also reveal and shape him/her.
I love plotting, but I still think of today's mysteries as character-plot-driven. The characters aren't one-dimensional figures that can be moved about at will, like pieces on a chess board, or the characters we've seen in some Golden Age mysteries. The character internals drive the story. My technique is to focus on the villain's story, before I get to the protagonist's story (the story that's put on the page; the actual book), and I look at what he did behind the scenes, but I base that on the kind of person he is and why he would have committed the crime, and committed it in that way, and why he would have hid it the way he did. It all comes from character. And once I understand that, then I move onto the story that's thrown at the protagonist, and he deals with it. Still character driven.

V. enjoyable thread.

My favorite books create this urgent need to know what will happen next - to the extent that when I'm away from the book I almost feel like the story's going on without me and if I don't get back to it soon I'm somehow "missing" it.

That sounds like I'm PRO-plot, but actually my favorite books are Historically based and even if I didn't already know the who, what, when & where before opening the book, a quick google search could easily fill in the details. So for me it's definitely the character development that makes me care so much about the story and want to know what will happen next TO my character and how they will respond.

In Cold Blood is the most obvious example that comes to mind.


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