Strength Of Character

London

Jerry-Faces-11_10_2005_nonames

 

On holiday this week, there are many, many novels around me – mostly intelligent US fiction – but no eReaders, and I’ve spotted very few doorstop pulps. Several of us are getting inspiration for new writing pieces from books, but of course you don’t necessarily improve your trade from upmarket literature. Pulps are important at an early age. I learned a lot from reading the stories of Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and exotic adventures like ‘Coral Island’ and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’. The common factor in the books I loved was strength of characterisation, then unusual situations and locations.

Genre writers obsess about their plots, yet in many of the best stories relatively little happens, and it’s the characters that stay with you. A great character in a weak plot is still preferable to a weak character in a great plot. Too much plotting is more harmful than too little, and the journey must always remain true to the characters. The moment you have your leads acting because of plot thrills, people disbelieve what they read or see. This is the moment when Glenn Close returns in ‘Fatal Attraction’, the moment Indiana Jones climbs into the fridge, the moment Ethan Hunt jumps off a skyscraper. It’s melodrama over organic development.

Read any book that Alfred Hitchcock planned to turn into a movie – and there were a lot of them – and you’ll soon discover that most have something in common. They have at least one fascinating, indecipherable character. On the first page of ‘Before The Fact’ by Francis Iles, we’re told that heroine Lina will discover her husband Johnny is a murderer.

Suspense escalates as Lina finds clues to Johnny’s behavior – his gambling, his stealing – and gives him the opportunity to explain his actions. Johnny is so charismatic that he always has a plausible excuse, and despite everything he still brings light into her life. The tension lies in wanting to know how long it will be before she ceases to be blindsided by him, until the book’s devastating final chapter explains the true nature of victimhood.

This chapter is so logical that it seems the whole book works backwards from it. Alfred Hitchcock’s version ‘Suspicion’ had the famous glowing-glass-of-milk scene but has an entirely different ending that wrecks the story’s trajectory.

My first few novels featured few memorable characters. With ‘Spanky’ I learned that bad-boy characters gave me licence to have fun, even if the book’s success entailed trudging around Britain’s shopping centres with the complaining cover model in tow for my signing sessions. I particularly enjoy writing strong female roles, which is why I had so much fun creating ‘Plastic’. But older readers can become quite conservative – others want their female characters to obsess about rich, princely, handsome men who strand them in complicated relationships. It was ever thus; remember the dreadful ‘Bridges of Madison County’?

When you create strong characters, you can put them in any situation and know how they’re going to react. And as I sit down now, with a blank screen before me, the first thing I start to think about is an interesting leading role.

The result, I hope, will be ‘Nyctophobia’ for next year, a haunted house story that’s virtually free of gore or violence. We associate ghost stories with shocks now, but many of the best examples merely have a sense of creeping dread, and the dropping feeling of mistakes that cannot be unmade. There are too many ghost stories to list here, but I’ll work up a list of best films next post.

 

 

3 comments on “Strength Of Character”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    One of the benefits of this blog is discovering why I like or do not like what I’ve been reading. I wonder if the most voracious readers are those who are fascinated by people and I agree about the need for distinctive characters because I sometimes forget plot details but really vivid people stay with me.

  2. Terenzio says:

    In Hitchcock’s adaptation of Before the Fact the inverted detective story found in the novel is taken out. In the film it boiled down to the imagination of a neurotic and insecure woman. In the novel Johnnie is a cold blooded murdering psychopath. There are two theories for the change. One is the studio didn’t want Cary Grant portrayed as a psychopath murderer and forced Hitchcock to make the changes. The other is Hitchcock wanted to make it all the figment of a women’s imagination. Who knows which is the truth, but it might have made a more interesting and stronger film had they kept the Johnnie character and outcome from the book. Sometimes I really enjoyed changes. For example, the final scene at the amusement park in Strangers on the Train which is borrowed from Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop). Granted it was a little hokey (I still get a chuckle when I picture it in my mind) with the old guy with the pipe crawling under the out of control Merry-Go-Round, however, you can’t deny it was quite exciting to watch. And definitely more suspenseful, at least from a visual standpoint when compared to the ending the book. Hitchcock said he was more interested in thrilling people with horror and suspense. With the classic detective story he was afraid people would focus too much on who the guilty party was. Hitchcock loved making the innocent man jump through hoops to prove his innocence. You gotta love Dame May Whitty when she jumped off the train with bullets flying running towards the hills to make her escape in The Lady Vanishes. You won’t find this scene in novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel White that the film is based on. And the scene from the film is so not believable, yet at the same time it is one of the best scene in the film.

    I’m not sure I would include a film like Fatal Attraction with films like Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible. I would categorize Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible with the more recent Star Trek. These films can’t be taken seriously. You are there for the ride and nothing more. I saw Star Trek with a friend and afterwards while walking home he started to question the plot. I turned to him and said just enjoy it for what it is.

    As far as plot driven versus character driven, it depends on what you are looking for. I found Woody Alllen’s To Rome with Love pretty stupid. I thought the characters were way too much, especially Woody Allen’s character and the plot (if there even was one) totally ridiculous. Although I must admit I’m glad I saw it and to some degree I did enjoy seeing it, but only for the setting – Rome. A city I really like to visit. Whereas, with Allen’s Matchpoint it could have taken place anywhere and I would’t have cared because what I was interested in the characters and the storyline.

    À bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple dressing gown and lovely velvet slippers. I shall retire to the boudoir with a campari and soda and listen the BBC Proms before dinner.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I certainly strength of character carries the story. I work hard at creating strongly developed characters. One thing that I particularly enjoy is a character that your not sure about who slowly grows more appealing as the story progresses. Difficult to do with subtlety, but neat when done well.
    I am looking forward to reading “Nyctophobia”, since I am really tired of the jack-in-the-box scares. I am more of an M.R. James fan and Lovecraft is good, but only when – for me – the plot is brewing with dread. When old ZXyrastouxiz descends from the dark spot between ionic spheres …. enh.

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