March 27, 2011
The Usual Characters
A friend of mine recently introduced me to two authors he's loved since he hit puberty and whose stories had a major influence on his life -- at least an influence on shaping his self-image. The authors were Leslie Charteris who wrote "The Saint" stories and Robert E. Howard best known as the writer of the Conan the Barbarian tales. His way of introducing me was the two Saint Omnibuses and Volume 1 of the Best of Robert E. Howard -- a total of about 1400 pages(!) of reading. Kind of a lot for an introduction, but I care for my friend, respect his opinions (usually) and these two authors were important to him, so I read.
What I found most interesting about Charteris and Howard weren't their works, but that these two particular authors exemplify the two supposedly opposite approaches that I long ago noticed almost all successful fiction writers end up taking.
If it's not possible to say that I've read too much in my life without it being blasphemy to bibliophiles, then let me say that I've read so much that I can fairly quickly absorb a writer's style and analyze it.
It's this that will cause me to start reading a writer's work; I'll read one book, enjoy it and go get some more by that writer. Then after a handful of books, I'll be in the middle of reading a novel and say to myself, "Bored now." And I never read anything else by that writer.
That's because in writing a large number of books most writers take one of two approaches.
The first approach is to find a successful character (or character pairing) and build an entire series around that character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes epitomizes that. The drawback for the authors is that they can tire of the character before the public does. They begin to feel constrained by this character that's taken on a life of its own. That's what happened to Doyle, and even though Doyle attempted to kill off Holmes, the public wouldn't let him. As a child this approach kept me reading the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries -- at least from the ages of 9 - 11. This was Charteris' "Saint" stories. Jonathan Kellerman's a modern day author who took this approach with his Alex Delaware series.
The second approach is the more widespread --- perhaps because authors feel less "locked in" by this approach. The authors think they have more freedom, but what they do with all this freedom is drolly ironic to me and the reason why I now get just as quickly bored with this approach as with the first approach. The author has different characters but, what they really have is the same character i.e. new name, identical personality in every book. In my childhood these would be the dog stories of Jim Kjelgaard. At the time I loved the familiarity of this. It was this approach that carried me through reading Robert A. Heinlein's works as I started out reading his juvenile fiction and grew into reading his adult works.
The Dick Francis horse racing stories fall into this category. I really enjoyed the first one I read, enough that I went out and got a stack more of them. But I never made it all the way through the stack because it only took about five books for me to get bored of reading the exact same leading guy every damn time. A friend of mine was crazy about Dean Koontz and lent me a number of them. I read them because I respected her opinion, but I have to say to me the Koontz novels were MAJOR FAIL. They were supposed to be scary, and I kept turning the pages waiting for something written there to actually scare me or to so much as raise my pulse. There was only one Koontz book I even enjoyed and that was "Watchers," and who wouldn't like a book about a golden retriever with human level intelligence? But that book encapsulated the Koontz character pairing because he used the exact same leading man and beautiful leading lady he used in every other book.
So I was reading the Howard collection my friend lent me. By the 4th short story it was obvious Howard had only one leading man. Here he was Kull in some ancient mythical kingdom. Here he was a Puritan, there he was a Gael at the beginning of Christianity. Later on his name was Conan. But every time it was the same guy: the same tough as nails, indifferent to wounds, best fighter, super-alpha male of alpha males. I could see the appeal of Howard for pubescent boys and men with humdrum lives. It's definitely male fantasy/adventure escapism -- especially with all those naked native women running around. Howard's a better writer than I thought he would be, and he actually does have a talent for descriptive passages, but it only took the four stories for me to figure out his style and his leading character and say, "Bored now."
The way I can rapidly absorb a writer's style and then grow --- quite frankly -- sick and tired of it, is the reason most of my reading nowadays is non-fiction and, predominantly, in the area of the natural sciences or history. I enjoy learning new facts. (I only wish the library would actually get in more books of that type.)
Knowing that most fiction writers take one of those two approaches to their works, I find myself even more impressed by one of my life-long (well, since I grew too old for Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys) favorite writers: Agatha Christie. Now I haven't read everything thing Christie wrote. Of her 60+ novels and 160 short stories, I've read over half, maybe two-thirds. But I've read enough to notice something about Christie's works.......
Christie did something remarkable. She didn't come up with one character and stick with it whether under the same name or different names. She came up with an ensemble of vastly different characters and was successful with each one. If you know Christie, when you think of her works, who immediately comes to mind are Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Quintessentially different personalities though, like all intelligent detective characters, both keen observers of human behavior. The fussy and eccentric Hercule Poirot uses logic to solve his cases while the utterly sensible and down to earth Jane Marple uses her knowledge of human nature combined with intuition to solve her cases. The characters of Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple are so different, even though I loved the Poirot stories, I don't actually care for the Marple stories. But Christie's got more characters than that. She's got the male - female pairing of Tommy & Tuppence who you also see in Bill & Bundle in "The Seven Dials Mystery." And then in her other stories she has the stolid, quiet, unassuming British man who appeared under a variety of names --- as Arthur Calgary in "Ordeal by Innocence" or Superintendent Battle in a number of books. In one of her more brilliant feats, Christie even managed to transplant him to the Egypt of the pharaohs in "Death Comes as the End" and did so so successfully that you can't read that novel without feeling like you were actually in the Middle Kingdom of 2000 BC. (I'm sure it helped that she was married to Sir Max Mallowan, a prominent British archeologist, at the time.) Even more unusually Christie proved she could write a story without any of those character types in what was probably her most baffling mystery, "And Then There Were None."
But when you consider that most writers can develop only one successful character/pairing, it's even more of an accomplishment that Christie came up with four distinct types and was a success with each of them. That explains why it's been almost 100 years since her first book "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" was published in 1920 and her works not only have never been out of print --- they've sold more than 2 billion copies, making her the best selling author in history. Christie is still going to be read in another 100 years.
Featuring the Usual Characters
For more about my take on literature, read the two part "4 Classic Novels That Are Way More Depressing Than You Think They Are Based on the Movies." Or read about learning from fiction in "15 Important Legal Points I've Learned from Watching "Law & Order."
Please take a moment to look around the Archive.