Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Day Off

with 6 comments

So, this is supposed to be a day off.

It’s not a day off, of course.  Come lunchtime, I’m going to have to buckle down and correct yet another huge pile of papers, and I’ve already worked on the new Gregor this morning and e-mailed a dozen people who do not seem to be able to understand the words “don’t post links to docx files.”

In the meantime, I’ve got this strange little country-rock song called “Drink in My Hand” running through my head, and I haven’t had a drink since the Obama election.  That’s when I drink–a double shot of Drambuie on ice for the Presidential elections.  I think of it as medicinal.

Anyway, this morning I have the kind of question that does not tend to generate a lot of comments, but I can always hope.

What is it about characters that makes it possible for you to connect with them?

And I’m aware of the fact that I’m not likely to get the answers I really need, because I don’t know how to ask this in the way that would elicit–whatever.

Look, I am reading, at the moment, a book that was send to me in hope of getting a blurb.  In some ways, it’s nice enough.  The premise is pretty good, if a little fey.  The setting is pretty good.  There’s a sort of lack of cohesion to the plot, as if the writer isn’t actually sure of how the genre works–but hey, it’s a first book.

My problem is that, to me, the main character especially seems completely flat.  That’s because an enormous amount of the writing here is tell and not show, and the tell is, for me, neither terrible plausible nor particularly individualistic.

But this isn’t the first book I’ve seen like this in the last five or six years, and some of them have sold at least reasonably well.  And I’ve had people come right up and tell me that they love the characters from Series X, which I haven’t been able to read at all because the characters never came alive on the page to me, because it was all tell and not show.

For these reasons, I figure there is something going on here that I do not understand.

Yes, I do get the thing about “story,” even though it isn’t my thing–but in the cases I’m talking about, I wouldn’t have said the story was that good, either.

The story could have been better in this case if the plot had been tighter and more focussed, but that not so tight and not so focussed thing is characteristic of the minor entries in the cozy subgenre.

So, seriously, what are people seeing here that I am not?

If you’ve got a book or a series where you especially like the characters, tell me what it is, and why you like them.

That way, I can go and take a shot at the books, if I haven’t read them, and maybe I’ll get a clue.

Because a clue would be really nice at this stage.

Written by janeh

February 20th, 2012 at 11:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Day Off'

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  1. Hmmm. That’s pretty much the fiction library. If I don’t enjoy the company of the people, why spend time with them? That said, whoever wrote that a “round” character was capable of surprising in a convincing way was on to something. Generally,
    (a) they have to be doing something I want them to succeed at. That is, several of my favorite characters have done criminal or even terrible things or are career criminals–but what they’re trying to do in the story is something I approve of. And sitting somewhere thinking deep thoughts does not, to me, make a satisfactory character or story.
    (b) the motives have to be comprehensible. I’m starting to hit–especially in modern romance–what I think of as “Martian novels.” I have no idea why these people are doing what they do. Those novels don’t come home.
    (c) they have to be reasonably intelligent. A stupid person is not necessarily a bad person, but he is, to me, a less interesting person. And I see no more amusement in watching stupid people try to think than I do in watching one-legged people try to run. (OK, I did enjoy the TV program DINOSAURS, but it holds as a general rule.)

    Specifics: The Heyer Regencies, in particular DEVIL’S CUB and RELUCTANT WIDOW, but they’re no use to you.
    Rafael Sabatini, with THE BLACK SWAN and MISTRESS WILDING leading the pack. (The movie version of THE BLACK SWAN was based on another book. Doesn’t count.)
    Lois McMaster Bujold: SHARDS OF HONOR and BARAYAR with Aral and Cordelia, WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE which is the next generation, and CURSE OF CHALION, which is no relation and outright high fantasy.
    Jennifer Crusie sometimes: AGNES AND THE HITMAN, WELCOME TO TEMPTATION and FAKING IT, plus the somewhat different BET ME.
    Leigh Brackett ever and always, but her best character work was in SWORD OF RHIANNON, which you might not enjoy for other reasons.
    Poul Anderson–anything with Nicholas van Rijn or his “Trouble Twisters” but especailly the short stories. And the unrelated HIGH CRUSADE. (DON’T WATCH THE MOVIE!! TERRIBLE!!)
    David Drake’s “Leary and Mundy” stories have the best ship’s crew this side of the original ENTERPRISE–but the early volumes are best.
    Rex Stout: pretty much any Wolfe–but it is Wolfe in particular. Archie tells the story well, but I don’t find him a particularly interesting character.
    Thomas Perry: three books only–METZGER’S DOG, ISLAND and BIG FISH.
    Walter Wager: two books only–SLEDGEHAMMER and DESIGNATED HITTER.
    Elizabeth Peters Peabody and Emmerson stories–but you have to stop with THE MUMMY CASE. Would that she had.
    C J Cherryh, THE PALADIN–only really two people, but nice ones.
    Barbara Hambly–for some weird reason, ALL her “Antryg and Joanna” stories to include STRANGER AT THE WEDDING in which they never appear. SILENT TOWER, SILICON MAGE and DOG WIZARD. (First two are DARKMAGE in the BC edition.)
    OK, Mystery, fantasy, SF, thrillers and romance. After that, you’re on your own.


    20 Feb 12 at 7:20 pm

  2. About the only Jeffery Deaver book I’ve ever really liked was his “Praying for Sleep”. The reason I liked it, and dislike his Lincoln Rhyme series so much, is his creation of what was, for me, an entirely believable character, something the Rhyme series makes no serious attempt to do. The anti-heroic character Michael Hrubek In “Sleep” resonated with me like few others outside Dickens ever have.

    Henning Mankell takes great care to create good characters. His Wallender is a tortured soul and one feels his pain. On a lighter note, Alexander McCall Smith Botswana books are full of vibrant characters, and his 44 Scotland Street series has the inimitable Bertie and his outrageous pseud of a mother, among many other interesting and engaging people.


    20 Feb 12 at 9:17 pm

  3. I note Robert’s list with interest, as some of his are some of mine, too. Though I like (and re-read perhaps obsessively) Hambly’s Darwath series as well as Antryg & Joanna, and her Sisters of the Raven books as well. Okay, just about any Barbara Hambly. John Varley’s Mars books have good characters. I love Katy Munger’s Casey Jones, and read everything Karin Slaughter writes, though much of it is too dark for me, and somewhat harrowing.

    Oh, and Dana Stabenow. EVERYTHING, including her 3 SF titles, screams character.

    But we can do examples all day long and that doesn’t help much. I guess, thinking about it, I need a character to have problems & issues I can relate to, or at least understand, AND has to have perseverance in the face of events. And they can’t be either whiners or so insecure they make my teeth ache. That’s one reason I can’t read most romance, or romance-masquerading-as-something-else. The heroines are so wrapped up in “does he, doesn’t he, do I, don’t I?” even after the guy has made it abundantly clear that Yes, He Does. Or she’s always angsting (I know, I verbed it) about her weight, her appearance, her lack of social status or whatever to the point you want to just scream.

    Ahem. I want to read about characters that get through It, whatever It is, and be shown HOW they do it. What inner strength or serious delusion or driving obession makes them keep striving? Niven’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” comes to mind.

    If there’s some humor or self-awareness along the way, so much the better. Note, I have come to loath Stephanie Plum with a passion. Humor, yes, but no self-awareness. Her hamster is more competent than she is. (And unreasonably long-lived as well. Those things only last 3 years, tops)

    I like it when people act like real people. I don’t need graphic descriptions, or too much attention to it, but when a couple awakes after a night of passion to re-engage or leap out of bed into danger, I always think, “really? No stop in the bathroom? Dragon breath, anyone?” But that’s just me.


    20 Feb 12 at 11:05 pm

  4. I am so attached to the characters in these authors’ books that I buy the books the instant they’re out and gobble them up, and often reread:

    All of Charlaine Harris’s series (Roe Teagarden less so than the other three series)
    Rex Stout
    SJ Rozan
    Craig Johnson
    Georgette Heyer
    Barbara Neely
    Jamie Harrison
    J.M. Hayes
    Gar Anthony Haywood’s Loudermilks

    I liked Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence a lot.

    And I couldn’t tell you what it is about them that I like so much.

    Kate, so very helpful


    21 Feb 12 at 12:22 am

  5. Characters I can’t stand:
    (Note: I estimate that I read on average about 10 mysteries for each non-mystery.)
    1) Spunky heroines.
    2) Posturing heroes.
    3) Protagonists with no sense of humor.
    4) Protagonists who do silly things.
    5) Protagonists who can go through all sorts of terrible stuff in the course of the book and remain completely unchanged by what they have done and/or what has been done to them.
    6) Protagonists who are basically antisocial, such as thieves, con-men, hit-men, drug dealers, etc. I choose not to spend time with such people, no matter what rationalization the author provides.
    7) Protagonists who are boring in the book and who are the kind of boring person one tries to avoid in real life.
    8) Protagonists who are focused on their “first-world problems,” as my niece says. For any of you who haven’t heard this expression before, first-world problems are pretty much the opposite of third-world problems. The heroine who focuses on her clothes, her hairdo, her nails, etc.
    9) Protagonists who have no compassion.
    10) Protagonists who have only superficial relationships with the other characters in the book.
    11) Characters who act out-of-character for no particular reason.
    12) Protagonists for whom Murphy’s Law has been suspended.
    13) Protagonists who never get distracted by all the distractions around them (or protagonists who live in a distraction-free zone).

    That’s all I can think of off the top of my head. The next time I quit reading a mystery part way into it, I’ll try to analyze what is wrong.


    19 Mar 12 at 2:56 am

  6. I tend to agree with all of the above except, perhaps, No 6. We’d put Lawrence Block, one of my favourites, out of business if everyone felt that way. I also have quibbles about No 9. Compassion is one of those rubbery words that means different things to different people.

    No 12 should perhaps be divided into two: a) those for whom Murphy’s Law has been suspended and b) those for whom the law of Gravity has been suspended. We could even add a third, c) those for whom Newton’s Third Law has been suspended.


    19 Mar 12 at 8:56 pm

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