Character or Plot?

So, I’ve just finished reading The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah. This is not a book review, as such – just some thoughts that struck me during/after reading. That said, I highly recommend you read this book if you like a good, puzzling mystery and you love quirky characters…

Here’s the blurb:

All she wanted to do was take her son’s forgotten sports kit to school.

So why does Nicki Clements drive past the home of controversial newspaper columnist Damon Blundy eight times in one day? Blundy has been murdered, and the words ‘HE IS NO LESS DEAD’ daubed on his wall – in red paint, not blood. And, though Blundy was killed with a knife, he was not stabbed. Why?

Nicki, called in for questioning, doesn’t have any of the answers police are looking for. Nor can she tell them the truth, because although she is not guilty of murder, she is far from innocent. And the words on the wall are disturbingly familiar to her, if only she could remember where she has heard them before…

First off, this is number 9 in a series. I didn’t know that before I started it – I was hooked by the premise and decided to read it. It’s always good to read a series in order, but to be honest it didn’t matter much as the focus was far more on the main characters than it was on the police involved in the investigation (note to self: DC Simon Waterhouse is very intriguing – might need to read some of the others now).

What struck me right from the start, was the character of Nicki Clements. From the minute she opened her mouth/mind to the reader, it was clear that this was a woman with a tangled web of secrets. Why does she have to take a massive detour to get to the school? What’s the story with her ex-best friend? Her family? Why is she so damn jumpy?

Turns out, she’s a compulsive liar. I won’t say more, for fear of spoilers. What I realised though, that as puzzling as the plot was (one of Hannah’s trademarks, hence why she was the perfect choice to write the next Poirot…), I was far more interested in finding out as much as I could about Nicki.

So, this brings me to my own writing… Like many authors, (I assume) I start out with a central premise, the ‘what if’ scenario that drives the story. Then I build on that by writing more notes about the plot, the subplots, any scenes that pop into my head, locations etc. The last thing I think about is the characters. In my first novel, Black Wood, the premise was sparked by a true event. The characters seemed to come from nowhere, and more of them appeared the more I wrote. I didn’t plan any of them out, and to be honest I couldn’t tell you what any of their eye colours are and whether they prefer cats or dogs, wine or beer or if they’ve ever watched X-Factor or Newsnight.

As a reader, I don’t care much about these things… I like to picture them my own way. So as a writer, even though I’ve tried the ‘character questionnaire’ approach, I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. I like my characters to be drawn through their actions and their dialogue, not their dress size or the length of their hair. I want them to have quirks and foibles – and I want them to be fluid, in that different readers can interpret them in their own ways. It’s always exciting when someone reads one of your stories and says ‘I thought X was… blah’ and you think, ‘Oh, I didn’t think that at all…’

However – I’ve read articles by authors who’ve said the exact opposite. ‘The character of X spoke to me,’ ‘I just had to tell their story,’ etc. Sometimes I wish one of those characters would pop into my head.

I think Nicki Clements was one of those characters…

From both a reader’s and writer’s point of view, I’d be interested to hear what you think…

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6 thoughts on “Character or Plot?

  1. Okay, I’m going to be one of those really annoying people that sits on the fence here. I’ve read novels where characters are clearly drawn and well defined and others where, as a reader, I have to form a picture in my own mind. I have to say that I think, based on the context of the book and the storyline, both can work. As long as the book is well written, the characters deep and intriguing and the story gripping, I don’t think it matters. I’m sorry, not much help!
    This one does sound interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jane. I’m probably on the fence myself, if I’m honest, all I know is that it matters more to me to find out how a character thinks than how they look… perhaps… I’m not much help to myself, I don’t think..! You’re right though, it does depend on the book and the actual story being told. I’m not sure I even retain a lot of the character descriptions in a book. Lee Child has a good way of dealing with his side of things by listing Jack Reacher’s vital statistics in the cover of every book… hence the fall-out when Tom Cruise got cast in the movie!

  2. Have you read any of Susan Hill’s Simon Serailler books? As a reader I find the characters far more fascinating than whatever crime is involved, whereas in most of the crime fiction I read I’m gripped by the plot.

    • Hi Tracey, thanks for commenting. No, I haven’t – but I know I have one of the older ones and one of the newer ones somewhere amongst the bookshelves/boxes – must dig them out! Sounds like they might be right up my street… I do love to be gripped by a plot – like you say, that’s the norm with crime fiction – but when a character grabs you, it really makes the book stand out.

      • Main character & his family make the series as much about their lives as crime detection. Read series in order if possible – not sure the string character thing would work as well otherwise.

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