Sunday Salon ~ Characters in Genre Fiction

As I expect my UK readers already know, The Teaching Company has recently opened an outlet on this side of the Atlantic, which has made ordering courses from their catalogue considerably easier.  Just before Christmas I treated myself to Timothy Spurgin’s twenty-four lecture series, The Art of Reading.  On sale, the downloadable version was less than a pound a lecture, a bargain unlikely to be beaten even in the most generous of January reductions.

I used to teach a course very similar to this and it’s always interesting to see how someone else approaches a topic that you have spent hours, weeks, years even, trying to make as accessible as possible to new undergrads who at school have been drilled with techniques designed to get them through exams without paying much attention to developing them as open-minded, thinking readers.

This morning I was listening to the session on characters, always a problem area for me because as a structuralist I instinctively read for plot first and characters tend to come a pretty poor second.  Spurgin was stressing the point that what he was considering was literary fiction where he would expect the principle characters to be well rounded and to have the potential to behave in unexpected but convincing ways.  Pulp fiction on the other hand, he suggested, was more likely to feature characters whose behaviour is predictable.  (I should say that he wasn’t necessarily downplaying plot here -we haven’t got that far in the series yet- simply focussing on one particular feature for discussion purposes.)

Now I would have stopped my I-pod there and then in order to have a good argue against this had Professor Spurgin not immediately qualified what he’d said – or rather had he not acknowledged that his wife had pointed out to him that he was being too sweeping in his generalisations.  Mrs Spurgin, a librarian apparently, had drawn his attention to the fact that what distinguishes a good genre writer from a poor one is precisely the fact that while plot is likely to be pre-eminent they do also make an attempt to shade their characters and give them three-dimensional qualities.  The author mentioned was P D James and I would agree that she does indeed create well-rounded characters, at least in her earlier books.  In fact, thinking about this while I was out walking, I realised that it was the way in which James has begun to falter in this respect in the more recent Dalgliesh books that has made me think that they are diminishing in quality.

Walking is always thinking time for me, so while I was out in this morning’s gorgeous winter sun I found myself drawing up a list of other popular fiction writers that I would cite as paying considerable attention to the creation of characters who are more than simply cardboard cut outs.  Ian Rankin was high on my list, as was Katharine Kerr in the field of fantasy and Philip Pullman where children’s literature is concerned.

What do you think about this as a means of distinguishing amongst the writers of genre fiction and if you agree with it as a principle who would you suggest should feature on that list?  All suggestions gratefully received.  Who knows, we might all meet some new writers we can add to our tbr piles – as if we needed any additions!

Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 6:32 pm  Comments (8)  

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  1. As far a genre fiction goes, I would generally agree that well-rounded characters is often what sets the excellent apart from the mediocre. That’s why Dorothy Sayers and Laurie King are my favorite mystery writers and why Stephen King is my favorite horror writer. Their characters feel like real people.

    But I wonder if a book can have one-dimensional characters and still be literary. Right now, Jenny and I are working on a review of Edith Wharton’s Custom of the County, and the main character certainly doesn’t have what I would call dimensions; she’s as shallow and predictable creature as I’ve ever found in a book, but Wharton’s characterization of her is highly literary.

  2. Teresa, I’m sure there have to be exceptions and I will look forward to your review of this book, which is one I don’t know. If the main character is so predictable, then what is it that keeps the reader’s interest in her? Does she precipitate change in those around her in some way as they react to her very onesidedness?

  3. I would agree to the extent that literary fiction characters should be well-rounded, but I don’t agree in the other direction; i.e., I think “pulp” characters can be well-rounded also. I don’t think that is what distinguishes one from the other (although I am unprepared to articulate just what does!)

  4. I am not sure that I can add much to this intellectual discussion 🙂 — but I have just recently discovered the Teaching Company’s resources and hope to make use of them in the near future.

    I hope you have had a wonderful New Year, Ann — and I look forward to following your posts in 2010.

  5. RIB, I don’t think that that was what Spurgin was saying really, just that in some pulp fiction characters are not well rounded and I can certainly think of examples where that is true and where I’ve put the book down half way through because however interesting the plot might be I just haven’t believed in the characters enacting it.

    Molly, you have a wealth of pleasure to come if you’ve started exploring the Teaching Company’s output. I certainly bless the day that I was pointed in their direction.

  6. My current reading is the no-longer fashionable MacDonald Harris, who seems, from those of his books that I’ve read, to have worked his way through the genres. I’ve stalled on the one I’m reading half-way through – from choice, because I am enjoying it so much – not least because I don’t know what the main character is going to do next – and I want to savour it for longer.

    Pondering this question makes me aware how much, as an avowed advocate of the middlebrow, I dislike making a distinction between literary and genre fiction. On the other hand, I think I am much less plot-oriented than you: I’ll often forgive a sloppy plot for good characterisation – in fact, I might not even notice that it’s sloppy – but I’ll give up a book quickly if I don’t like or believe in the characters. Edith Wharton being a case in point: I had tremendous trouble with Lily Bart.

    I’m not sure where this leaves me in terms of the debate, but I think that some of Terry Pratchett’s major characters, Sam Vimes, for instance, show a good deal of complexity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read The Night Watch.

  7. I listened to Timothy Spurgin’s lecture series on The English Novel and thought it quite good, though he made a couple of mistakes with Austen, which irritated me at the time. That said, I instinctively revolt against such pat categorizations as “genre fiction is plot-driven and literary fiction is character fiction,” though if that is true, it is a direct result of the publishing industry’s single-minded attempt to steer authors into writing for marketability rather than to tell a story.

    Perhaps this is why I enjoy the classics so much, where plot and character are both required (and allowed) in equal measure. Character without plot is a just writing exercise and plot without character dimension is Avatar (disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie, but the point is, I’m never interested in a movie that is just special effects!).

    I will agree that the best genre novels are those with interesting characters–believable but interesting, complex, conflicted, human, recognizable.

    I’ve never read PD James, maybe in 2010. I just bought my first Ian Rankin–anticipation growing. I would put Gabaldon on the list of genre-writers who create wonderful characters and intricate plots.

    I also do my best thinking whilst walking. Boy, do I wish I had the time to walk more…

  8. GC, I agree the distinction is sometimes difficult to make. I think the reason Spurgin is making it in this instance is that he is trying to encourage readers to stick with a book despite the fact that they may not like the main character becasue he feels that in some cases the writer is deliberately exploring what makes such a character works. I really am going to have to read Pratchett; I only know Truth.

    Jane, I know what you mean about picking up some of the TC lecturers on writers we know well. There are points in Prof Sutherlands lectures on Shakespeare where I want to say “No!”. But then I suppose asking anyone to be brilliant over a period as great as those two are tackling is asking for perfection.

    You still have both Rankin and James to read? I am so envious.

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