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…

Bird Box by Josh Malerman #Review

Most people ignored the outrageous reports on the news. But they became too frequent, they became too real. And soon, they began happening down the street. Then the Internet died. The television and radio went silent. The phones stopped ringing. And we couldn’t look outside anymore. Malorie raises the children the only way she can; indoors. The house is quiet. The doors are locked, the curtains are closed, mattresses are nailed over the windows.

They are out there. 

*

There are numerous books and films out there about post-apocalyptic worlds, dystopias, the destruction of mankind… a lot of the same territory is covered. It’s hard to come up with something original. The most exciting I’d seen prior to this was The Children of Men. Josh Malerman manages to go one step further, resulting in a book that will stop you in your tracks, keeping you reading in one-sitting, so that you will miss your stop on the train, bump into lampposts, and stay awake all night.

The end of the world starts in typical fashion – something ‘strange’ is happening to people in different parts of the world. The events increase in frequency until they reach Chicago, where Malorie lives with her sister Shannon. They have just moved into a flat together, there is a new boyfriend on the scene. All is looking good, until Malorie realises she is pregnant, and shortly afterwards she ends up alone and scared.

The story flits from past to present – from pregnancy to the aftermath – as the world falls further into decline. Malorie must make a perilous journey to find other survivors… not once, but twice. And throughout all of this, she must avoid what lurks outside her front door…

…and she can’t open her eyes.

One word review: Brilliant.

[Big thanks to Liz Loves Books for sharing her review copy with me]