Sunday, October 16, 2011

What’s more important, plot or character?

This post is part of a Rolling Blog Tour--check out the other entries at the end

Actually, I hate this question—which is why I chose to write about it today. Plot or character?  Both. They are intertwined and you can’t have a good mystery story without both. The events of the plot fuel reactions from the characters, and these reactions reveal human strengths and flaws that engage the reader. For example, in my first mystery, Bound for Eternity, Lisa Donahue finds a body in her museum’s mummy case at night. She keeps her cool long enough to get her daughter out of the way and call the police and, and then discovers her legs feel like cold linguini. She’s a good enough mom to want to protect her daughter, but she trembles with fear and horror when she realizes the dead body is that of a friend and colleague. Why is she messing around with a mummy after 5 pm? Because she’s just taken it for a CT scan at a local hospital. The mummy is the star of the plot, because everything revolves around it.

Just to make the question more complicated, one of the other “characters” is a also the setting: a creepy old attic museum with pigeons flying in and out of broken windows, no air conditioning, and an archaic security system. This attic museum, just like the one where I worked as a curator early in my career, inspired the story in the first place: it is such an delightful setting for a murder.

One of the villains in my third mystery, The Fall of Augustus, is The Boss Everyone Loves to Hate—a domineering woman who enjoys manipulating the emotions and actions of her primarily female staff. The sound of her high heels clack-clacking down the hall makes Lisa and her fellow employees flinch and shiver as they wonder what new public humiliation is in store. This character, like many obvious obnoxious people, fuels the plot because she generates hatred and fear—and the reader immediately wonders if she will be a murder victim.

The best villains are the ones who are not cardboard characters, but flesh-and-blood people with some redeeming characteristics as well as flaws. Their complicated pasts provide plot twists for the writer to explore, making the mystery a many-layered treat for the reader.

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Mollie Bryan http://www.molliecoxbryan.comKathleen Kaska,