Things I like in fiction

7 January 2012 by Jennifer

Musings about character, plot and so on.

The other day, I happened upon an interesting question on someone’s private blog: how important is plot to your enjoyment of a book, and how much does it spoil the fun if the plot is flawed? My response quickly grew beyond sensible comment size :-)

Logical consistency

I don’t like things happening that actively contradict the previous logic of the book, leaving me as a reader with “But wait a minute…”.

One glaring example that sticks in my mind, though it’s actually from a film and not a book, is the end of the film Dune where it suddenly starts raining for some unexplained magical reason!

In the book, the unlocking of the planet’s water was a gradual ecological transformation, over years and years. But when they made the film, oh no, that wasn’t good enough – an instantaneous result was required for dramatic purposes even though it made no sense.

I still recall seeing it in the cinema one day many years ago, when the film first came out. As the rain began to fall, and young Alia said in wondering tones “He is the Kwisatz Haderach”, my response was the actual words “Oh, leave it out” ::haha::

This also has something to do with why (a) I don’t watch many films and (b) I almost never watch any film of which I’ve enjoyed the book :-)

Character realness

But getting back to actual books and their plots:

One thing I’ve noticed more about my reading habits since starting the BookTrail microblog is how often my enjoyment of a book is mainly about the vividness of the world and especially the characters.

So probably the worst kind of plot weakness for me is when one of the characters is written to do something that they “just wouldn’t do”.

I can’t remember which book it was (and I didn’t bother putting it on BookTrail), but there was a novel I read a while back which was all from the point of view of this bloke. Well, in order to make the plotline for him go a certain way, this woman he was involved with had to do certain things. And what she did was utterly implausible to me. It just didn’t make sense in terms of what she would’ve had to have been thinking at the time.

After I got to the end, I had this fantasy of challenging its author to write the same story again from her point of view. Not that I actually thought he could have – I don’t think the gaping holes in her motivation could ever have been reconciled into a plausible shape – but if he’d accepted the challenge, the struggle to attempt it would have been fitting reward for writing such a tokenistic puppet of a character!

The same thing arises in smaller ways sometimes: “But why did they suddenly say that then?” “But people don’t talk like that.” “Why didn’t A just ask B, like any sensible person would?”

Cleverness in plot

I do appreciate it as a work of art if an author manages to set up a genuinely unexpected twist. But for me that’s not essential.

I remember discussing the Narnia books a while ago and someone suggesting to me that Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn’t really have much of a plot. That thought had literally never occurred to me before. There’s nothing twisty in it, but there’s the redemption of Eustace, and the destiny of Reepicheep, and lots of shorter adventures. That’s good enough for me!

Domestic and practical

Likewise, I don’t have any requirement for the scale to be momentous. And even if the scale is momentous, I like it when practical, domestic details form part of the narrative.

There’s a bit in Prince Caspian, where they’re travelling through woodland and a bear comes after them and they kill it – actually I’m going to find this and quote it:

Raw meat is not a nice thing to fill one’s pockets with, but they folded it up in fresh leaves and made the best of it. They were all experienced enough to know that they would feel quite differently about these squashy and unpleasant parcels when they had walked long enough to be really hungry.

Isn’t that just 100% true about how food seems different depending on whether you’re hungry? I always think when I read that bit “That was written by someone who’d been out hiking”. (Which i.i.r.c. is true actually – C S Lewis did like to go and spend time walking outside. I think he lived near some hills, can’t remember exactly now.)

I’m thinking now too of the way the magic items in Elidor, when brought into this world, interfere with the TV reception. Magic and ordinariness mixed is much more satisfactory to me than magic by itself. And I always like it if the protagonists’ challenge is partly formed by logically consistent tricky side effects or limitations of the magic.

The domestic/practical side is also part of what I enjoy about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: she has a great line in domestic detail :-)

Gradual revelations

Part of what I like about detective stories is that at the beginning there’s lots of stuff you don’t know, and then you gradually find it out throughout the book. When well done, I find that very enjoyable. A lot of non-detective novels feature that puzzle/solution trajectory too; it doesn’t have to be officially “A Mystery”.

Sometimes it’s learning something about the characters’ past; sometimes it’s learning something they don’t know themselves. In Dune-the-book, the “what you don’t know at the start” includes all kinds of details of the planet’s culture and ecology, and the gradual discovery of all that is a lot of the plot. I think for me that’s the main reason why none of the Dune sequels could live up to the first in the series: it would’ve been really difficult to generate an amount of new unknown-ness in that same universe comparable to what’s kept from the reader at the start of the first one.

Characters and what they’re dealing with

The Narnia books also provide good examples of possibly my major fiction-enjoyment criterion: that the characters are rewarding to spend time with in terms of their inner life and how they respond to the challenges life puts in their way. I want to glean something from their fictional learning and thinking that has some relevance to my own life, or at least enjoy their company.

One of my favourite Narnia episodes is in Prince Caspian when Lucy sees Aslan and the others don’t believe her. That’s such a beautiful metaphor for the challenge of following your own intuition.

Likewise with the Dorothy L Sayers stories. I like detective stories anyway, but Gaudy Night is especially rich because of the way Harriet thinks, and the questions of integrity and ethics she’s grappling with. It’s a pleasure to hang out with her.

So yeah, for me the plot has to have a shape consistent with itself and the people in it. But I think what most often brings me back to books again and again as favourites is the people.

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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