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Monday, November 16, 2015

Lazy Writing

by Linda Rodriguez

My husband and I have been binge-watching Prime Suspect on Netflix lately. Helen Mirren is awesome, as always, but the ensemble cast is of extremely high quality, also, and the writing is superb. Until. (You knew there had to be an “until” hanging around there somewhere, didn’t you?)

Suddenly, one episode begins with Mirren’s character DCI Jane Tennison doing something so out of character and just plain stupid (for a very smart, savvy character) that both husband and I are screaming, “What? Jane would never do that!” This out-of-character action she has taken is an obvious set-up to provide lots of conflict later for Jane, but between us, we came up with four different ways the author could have set up the exact same conflict without having Jane commit an action totally wrong for her character.

Normally, I don’t even worry about this in movies or TV shows because I usually simply can’t hold them to as high a standard as I do books, but this series is so well-written that I do expect that kind of intelligent writing. It’s happened before in books by excellent writers, as well. I can understand the impulse behind it because I think there are times we all are frustrated in our plotting and tempted by the lazy way to put our protagonists where they need to be.

The writer of one of the strongest, best-written mystery series around (who shall remain nameless because she’s never done it again) did this in one of her books, causing her protagonist to violate the essence of the character the writer had spent four books building up in order to allow that protagonist to learn something the author needed the protagonist to know and to create conflict for the protagonist. It was darned near a throw-the-book-against-the-wall moment for me, and if this author hadn’t already built up so much respect, I would have.

I finished that book, in which the character went right back to being the person delineated in the previous books, and have continued reading that author. Although we stopped midway in the Prime Suspect episode, the others have been so good that we will probably give it a chance and finish it. But I have stopped reading some less-stellar authors’ series when they’ve pulled that kind of boner. If you can’t believe in a character’s reality, it pretty much blows the whole show, I think.

How do you feel about a major character making a move that’s not just a surprise but completely wrong and out of character? Do you just shrug and move on, or does it bother you as it does me?


E. B. Davis said...

When Martha Grimes's main character Richard Jury bedded a suspect, who, he later found, was guilty, I cringed. I wondered what Martha was doing. One of her themes was the bending of moral codes, such as in my favorite of her series, The Old Contemptibles, in which the bending was done for the greater good. But in compromising Jury's character, I found fault. Little did I know that even then she was sabotaging her own series. Frankly, it broke my heart. Yes, Martha has had issues with publishing, and she's made no secret of it, but taking it out on her characters compromised her work.

Warren Bull said...

It is annoying, to put it mildly, when an author has a character act in a way the character would never act to set up a problem and/or conflict later in the work. I once read a book where the protagonist planned to sneak up on the bad guys in an outdoor snowy setting. To accomplish this she put on a red coat that had never been mentioned before. Hmm, red coat, white background...What could possibly go wrong?

Jim Jackson said...

There are too many good series to waste time on a poor one. Every established author (that is established to me, not established based on best-seller status) gets one mulligan. Second miscue and they have lost me as a reader.

Is that picky? Yes, and I don’t apply it to all things, but I do know something (not as much as I wish, mind you, but something) about writing crime novels, and so an author needs to entertain me at a deeper level than when I watch a movie or a football game.

I will admit that beta readers have caught me writing an out-of-character action on occasion. I’m so glad they did, so I can take off my blinders and fix it. Sometimes I wonder if editors are in awe of bestselling authors so their manuscripts don’t get as much critical attention as “lesser” works do.

~ Jim

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Jane Tennison is a compelling character, tripped up by her flaws and bad decisions.

In books? One unsatisfying or sloppy book, I'm wary. With the second book, I'm done.

Another item for my revision list, keeping the characters in character.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, I hear you on that with Martha Grimes and her Richard Jury character. What she did to that series was sad.

Exactly, Warren! In the instance I mention, a character who's been developed as smart, sane, super-ethical, and balanced, with excellent self-control suddenly gets drunk at a party at a major suspect's house and sneaks up into the personal rooms to burglarize them, looking for clues without really expecting to find anything, just for kicks. Only, of course, she finds major contraband and has to hide out in a compromising position. The author made this character who was not the drinking type get drunk as an excuse to break all the other rules set for this character. Fortunately, she's never done anything like that again.

Jim, I'm with you. IF they've won my favor, they can survive ONE--and one only--goof like this. If they haven't been good enough to make me a fan already, even that one error will send me packing.

Margaret, you're generous. I suspect, that the longer you write, the less generous you'll become. But yes, to the item on the revision list--always keep the characters in character once you've established that character or properly prepare for something that will yank them out of character, so it doesn't come out of left field to the reader.

KM Rockwood said...

People, in real life and in fiction, can be so quirky, sometimes it's hard to tell when they are acting "out of character." I know sometimes a critique partner will catch me writing something that doesn't quite fit, and, like Jim, I'm grateful to be put on notice so I can fix it ASAP.

But you're right--there are some things a character (or a person) would never do, or always do, and it does grate on me when such a variation is used to facilitate a plot point.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, KM. When you can tell that the only reason this character has been wrenched out of shape was to make something happen that the author needed to have happen, it's usually obvious and sooooooo irritating.

Sarah Henning said...

Oh, it always bothers me, Linda! Always! Especially when it's just obvious that it was done for ratings (though it seems like sweeps are less important nowadays). Soooooo annoying. I would've been screaming too!

Gloria Alden said...

Linda, I don't watch much TV except for the PBS mysteries, and so far I haven't seen much
of a problem with them, although often they're talking while walking away making it hard to hear what they say. "-) However, even if I like the author as a person, and I read his/her characters doing really dumb things that make me shake my head, I don't want to read any more of their books and often the one I have goes to Goodwill. One of the things that annoys me is
when the main character, who usually happens to be a woman, acts like a spoiled brat.
I know Elizabeth George suffered from having Inspector Lynley's wife murdered. I wonder if she did that for ratings since he was so happily married.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Sarah, I don't know how the ratings sweeps and things work in the UK, so I don't know if this in PRIME SUSPECT was done for ratings or not. I do think it was done to ratchet up the tension in a totally artificial way.

Gloria, yes, I can't continue a series if the author is going to make his/her character do too-stupid-to-live things. An author I know and like had several well-written early series dropped by publishers and had to reinvent his/her self with a pen name in the cozy field. In the new books, the protagonist, who is intelligent, is often made to do grossly stupid things for plot purposes. I simply can't read them. I like this author personally and can understand why he/she does it because this series is selling like hot cakes unlike the earlier, much better written series. I guess everyone isn't like us.

Kait said...

@Warren, I remember that too. After that, even though I still read the series, it was more in the nature of an I'm in the airport and need a book rather than salivating for the book to be available after it was announced (pre Kindle of course). There are times when out of character is actually character development. Even though that jars as well, I will usually read to the end to see the deviation served a purpose. If it did, I'm intrigued. If it didn't - book meets wall (pre Kindle)

Shari Randall said...

Oh, I know what you mean, Linda! I've cooled on many series after those cringe worthy slip ups. The last time that happened was in a critically acclaimed book (I won't name names) but the main character did something that he never, over dozens of books, did before. It was a bucket of cold water, believe me. I wonder why the editors (who love the characters as much as we do, I hope) don't stop them!

Anonymous said...

I need to care about the characters, and illogical and careless behavior makes it hard to care. Kudos to authors and their friends and editors that catch problems before they are set in cement.
Also, kudos to authors who write to a logical conclusion, not a cliff-hanger, a bit off-topic, but a problem showing up more and more . . .

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Kait, sometimes as a character grows and changes, s/he'll act out of character, but it still has to be believable. In my last book, my protagonist, who has sworn off men for good reason, has had a series of shocks that leave her wondering if she'll end up an old bitter woman alone. Also, because she's been drinking when she usually doesn't (for a good reason), she makes an impulsive decision and does something that she regrets. Nothing major--just making a fool out of herself, though of course that feels major to her. It's actually a step that's going to begin major character development and growth in later books, but it feels very out of character for Skeet, so I worked ultra hard to build the whole thing up and demonstrate all the triggering circumstances.

Shari, if an author's built up a residue of respect and good will with me, I'll give her/him a second, maybe even a third, chance, but after that, I just can't. As you so aptly put it, it's like the author throws a bucket of cold water over you. And yes, you'd think the editors would catch such things.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Ah, Mary, the cliffhanger. I'm guilty of that, but I try to always completely tie up the story of the current book--murderer caught, mystery solved, innocents saved, if need be--so that my only cliffhanger will be in the ongoing-through-the-series personal story of the protagonist. Because going through everything in my books, where deaths have real consequences and violence leaves chaos in its wake, should change things with my protagonist--she should come out at a different spot from where she entered, perhaps on the brink of something unexpected.

But if the book's story isn't completed and mystery solved, that's unconscionable. One of the reasons people read mysteries is for that sense of justice restored. Now, some writers will solve the mystery and then let the protagonist go on unchanged, and many people want that kind of surety, so that's okay. I feel that, even after the mystery's solved, there should still be scars and aftereffects that my protagonist needs to deal with, and hence emotional cliffhangers may arise. It's just two different ways of dealing with it. I justify writing about violence to myself by never underestimating its impact on people's lives even once justice has been delivered.