I was talking with my buddy this week, and we decided I should probably write mysteries if anything. Mysteries have to present and solve a puzzle, so they’re very plot-centric, which I tend to be. Not that my characters are crap, but there’s a certain style of writing — which is the more popular one, I’m sure — that sort of lets characters run around doing things and so puts their thoughts and feelings ahead of any goings on, which otherwise may not be very interesting at all.
I started a book last year where the main character was wrestling with a genuine moral dilemma and for three chapters, she went around asking people’s advice and fretting about it at the grocery store and trying to drown it in shopping, and while it _was_ a big deal, I was just like “Jesus, shoot someone in the face already!” and stopped reading.
That of course is a “bad” example of what I mean. A “good” example is maybe someone like Stephen King. His peeps run around making bad decisions and generally getting themselves killed until that starts to get tedious, whereupon King says “Oh shit, I have to end this somehow,” and then it just kind of stops, which explains why so many of his books fizzle at the end. But before that, they’re generally very interesting.
Thing is, I just don’t write that way. It wasn’t a choice. That’s just how it turned out. I like plots. I like stories that have plots. I’ll take a book with stock characters inside a clever plot over one with deeply drawn characters wandering around arguing with each other — which is why I’ve never finished anything by Neal Stephenson.
Ideally, books would have BOTH interesting characters and a swift and clever plot. And that’s what I aim for. Every time. But at the end of the day, I’m not going to subordinate the goings on to the characters because I don’t even like reading that shit, let alone spending months and months crafting it.
I don’t feel bad about this. For one, I doubt most readers stick exclusively to one or the other. People can enjoy different things. And the conversation with my buddy this week really helped me let go of the feeling that I should be writing like King or Stephenson or Gene Wolfe or whoever. My stories have plots. Every chapter advances the plot. Every. Chapter. I don’t pause for character development. I don’t _skip_ it either. I find a way to combine the two. I think good writing should. That’s part of what makes it so difficult to execute.
Take the penthouse scene in Episode Five of The Minus Faction. In order to (hopefully) deliver a satisfying emotional experience, I had to forge the four members of the team into a family, which meant relating each to the other over the course of the series in every possible combination. Ian and Wink start off together. John recruits Xana. John and Ian share a moment together in captivity at the end. And so on.
This is why it’s Xana and Ian on the run together. That was all that was left. But I wasn’t just checking boxes. It was also a way to present their opposing belief structures. A family isn’t comprised of people who think the same. Families argue. Families differ. For example, Xana is Christian, but being from a Third World country, hers is a very organic faith rather than the homogeneous mass produced middle class suburban Protestantism most people in North America think of when you say “Christian.” Ian, on the other hand, never had Xana’s troubles. He was raised in that comfortable homogeneous mass produced North American suburbanism (he’s Canadian) and rejects it, like so many of us, in favor of a tepid agnosticism.
I didn’t just want to show these two hanging out doing random shit. That’s not interesting. It also creates no tension. So I had Ian go through the files they stole from the bad guys, which both gave me a way to reveal some of the evil plot (through his description to Xana) and to deepen the characters — that plot reveals a moral dilemma, and so Xana’s and Ian’s differing responses to it become symbolic of their worldviews.
Ian is analytical and skeptical of authority, but that doesn’t give him any answers, just better questions, and so he starts off somewhat sympathetic to bad guys’ aims. That’s me saying it’s easy to be led astray when you try to reason your way through life.
Xana is deferential to authority. She knows she doesn’t have the answer, she’s okay with that, and she trusts in someone who does. Trust in God is the essence of faith, so she says they need to rejoin the others, that Cap will know what to do. But of course at the end of the episode we find out that the team is working for a complete fiction — a kind of absent god.
Thus, over the course of that one chapter, the reader gets to discover more of the plot and to see two members of the team wrestle with some heady questions, bonding with each other in the process. And lest anyone get bored, I end it with a bang! Barricade fires a rail gun into the building and a battle ensues. In the next scene, Xana uses a refrigerator like a missile, a surprise enemy appears, and someone dies.
THAT’S what I write. Plot. Characters. Philosophy. Action. And so I’m thinking mystery might be a good genre for me. Weird mystery.
illustration by Reiko Murakami