Sunday, October 21, 2012

Minimum Deliverables

What do I demand from crime fiction—okay, from any kind of fiction?

I'd say I finish reading about 60 percent of the books I begin in any given year.  Of the forty percent I don't finish, there are those I simply put down, those I put down with some resentment that my time has been stolen from me under false pretenses, and those that I throw against the nearest wall.

The ones I just quit reading are those that simply don't hold my interest.  A whodunnit is in trouble if the reader doesn't care whodunnit.  A thriller is in trouble when the reader doesn't care how the protagonist will get out of the fix.  Any crime novel is in serious trouble when the reader wishes the killer would rub out most of the surviving characters.

The ones I actively resent and the ones that get hurled against the wall commit (to my way of thinking) cardinal sins.

So what's a cardinal sin?  It's failing to meet the minimum deliverables of fiction, according to my personal scale.

Here's what I want.  An interesting story about convincing characters that's well told and deals with issues that engage me.  It wouldn't hurt if it also made me laugh or gave me goosebumps or brought tears to my eyes or dazzled me with language, but those are extras.  They're great, but they're not deal-breakers.

The highest compliment a reader can pay to a writer is to turn the page.  I'll keep doing that with a modestly interesting book about consistent characters, the kind of people I might chat with on a plane.  I probably won't remember it a week later and I won't recommend it, but I'll finish it.

Take that same book—modestly interesting plot, okay writing, issues that are just above “meh” on my issues scale, but give it fascinating, fully-rounded, compelling characters, and I'll read it avidly, despite its other shortcomings.  I'll remember it.  I'll go back to it, trying to learn something.

By the same measure, create an amazingly structured mystery or thriller with a lightning pace, unforeseeable reversals, and a shattering climax, and people it with inconsistent, paper-thin dullards, and I'm going to be back at the library after fifty pages.

As I suppose it's clear (at least, to those of you who are still reading this) out of all my minimum deliverables, there's actually only one that's absolutely essential, and that's character.

Books for me are people, plain and simple.  Everything else is garnish.  Great characters will carry me through a boring story, but the greatest story on earth won't hold me unless I want to be with those people.  And they can't betray who they are for the purposes of plot.  If they're real people, they have to behave like real people.  The minute they don't, I'm out of there.

They don't have to be realistic characters in the conventional sense.  They can be elves or hobbits or even a teddy bear (in one memorable book) but I have to believe that they breathe, think, and care, and once I know what they care about, they'd better not violate it.  I do have to confess that I have problems with narrators that are cats and giggling serial killers who regard murder as the setup for a punch line, but even one of those--sufficiently well done--will hold me for a few hundred pages.  I'd have to open that kind of a book by accident, but once I did I'd stay with it if the characters were there.

What about you?  What are your minimum deliverables?  What have I left out?  What's on my list that isn't necessary to you?

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Very well put! An article that deserves to be read and thought about.

  2. Good stories have good characters with something at risk.

    A good character is some one/thing that you find interesting (and fascinating is better). You don't necessarily have to LIKE them, but you'd damn well better be INTERESTED in them.

    The risk factor is the difference between a ho-hum character and a fascinating character, because risk brings out the truth in character, reveals that which we all normally keep hidden (or try to...)

    Reality is not a necessity (I read a LOT of science fiction and fantasy), but CONSISTENCY and REASON are necessary, and that applies to characters and plot alike. People aren't always consistent, but if they're not they'd damn well better be REASONABLY inconsistent. Same goes for plot. It's all about "willing suspension of disbelief." If things start becoming TOO inconsistent or TOO unreasonable, then the willingness disappears and the book hits the wall.

    And, of course, presentation helps a LOT. If I have to WORK too hard to get through the verbiage, I'm not going to enjoy the process nearly as much as when the words just flow through my eyeballs and into my brain with little sensation of their passage.

    And, finally, there's exceptions to all of this, of course. Every rule can be broken... just as long as it's broken WELL!

  3. Thanks, Tim, I was just about to send off Andreas Kaldis #5 to my publisher when I read this...making me rethink everything...Hope you're enjoying Thailand...and don't catch anything (too) serious:)

  4. I recently discovered a new to me writer, and I wondered why she engaged me so much. and here is your post that enlightens me. The story is always interesting, and personal. The setting is very often part of the character of the book. Like Breathing Water :) (Etc)
    So it does come to character, as you described. I have to care about the characters, and to be engaged by them. They have be alive, and human. Imperfect, but persevering. Nice post, Tim. You always make me think.

  5. Hi, Lil, and thanks, and who's the writer? I need to read that writer. I think, if I didn't make myself clear in the post, that character is first, second, third, and fourth in importance to me, and everything else is tied for fifth.

    Jeff, your characters are perfect. I can hear their voices and see them as I read. I've never known you to violate the reader's trust in your characters. Whatever was wrong with that book, if anything was, I'll bet it's not character.

    Everett. I agree with everything you say. It's much more important to be interested in and to believe a character than it is to like him/her. (That said, the stakes in a novel do increase in intensity when we care about the character who's at risk.) But I'd rather read about dull people I believe in than caped crusaders with super powers who are no thicker than a layer of ink. In terms of story, I think the most common reason for story failure is that the plot is a box top to put the characters in rather than something that arises from their actions, and they do absolutely uncharacteristic things to make the story "work" on some level. And the second most common reason (for me) is coincidence as a plot mechanism. I'd prefer the old Greed Deus ex Machins, a God being lowered via a machine to resolve the action, to coincidence being a determining factor.

    Marina Sophia, thank you so much for that, and for taking the time to comment. I wrote this piece very fast because I'm in a different time zone than usual and I suddenly realized it was going to be late, but I still mean every word of it.

  6. I gotta go with Tim on this one. Thin story with great characters can still keep me engaged.

  7. It's the characters. I can't tell you the plots of a lot of series fiction I read, nor can I remember the titles to say which book is which. I read them for the characters, people I've come to like and want to come back to.

    As for plots, they don;t have to be real, but things have to be set up so i can believe this could happen. In fact, that it is happening. Don;t disturb my fictional dream, and I'm hooked. Characters are the best way to keep a book grounded.

    Second to characters is the writing itself. i can forgive a lot in a plot (not even Chandler could remember all of the plot to THE BIG SLEEP), if the writing and characters hold my interest.

  8. Thanks, Laren, thanks Dana. It's all about people. Fiction of all kinds brings people into our worlds whom we otherwise couldn't meet--much less BE, in the way we can be Emma Bovary or Raskolnikov or Philip Marlowe. Everything else about the reading experience pales beside that, at least for me. And you're right, Dana; I can remember characters from books much more clearly than I can remember stories, and this is even true of my own books.