On those rare occasions when I’m not writing about ghosts, murder, the Jersey Shore (sans Snooki) and did I mention ghosts?, I sometimes teach writing of various kinds at various colleges. And the students are lovely people (most of them), eager to learn, more eager to get a good grade, and at least pretending to be interested in the subject matter.
Still, it astonishes me how much they don’t know.
I’m not talking about writing. Some of them can write walking in the door on the first day, and others are timid at first but learn to spread their wings (and other clichéd metaphors) as the term progresses. No, teaching them about writing is my job, and I don’t expect them to know much coming in.
It’s the important stuff. (I’m getting there, mystery fans; just hang in a bit). I teach screenwriting at one college, and after showing a clip of Laurel and Hardy have been asked, “What’s up with that guy in the hat?” I have assigned an essay at another college that at least peripherally deals with the shootings on a New York subway by Bernhard Goetz in 1984. My students asked who this Goetz guy might be.
The one that tore it for me was when mentioned a bowling alley in one class and the student raised a hand and asked what a bowling alley might be.
Personally, I blame their parents. Wake my 24-year-old son up at three in the morning and ask him which studio made the Marx Brothers classic DUCK SOUP and he’ll stare at you with pity in his eyes and say, “Paramount. Why?” And then roll back over and go to sleep because it’s three in the morning.
We raised that boy right.
My daughter, now a 20-year-old senior at one of the colleges where I teach (she was a student there before I started teaching there), is a fan of Aaron Sorkin. A fan of a screenwriter. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.
What touches us, what we take with us, from any experience is random and subjective. There are people who truly believe that THE ENGLISH PATIENT is one of the greatest films ever made. I remember having a good nap, and then noting that the configuration of an airplane meant the whole movie didn’t make any sense. That doesn’t make either of us wrong; we have differing tastes. It’s what we remember about the experience that counts, finally.
And that, mystery lovers (you knew I’d get to you) is why I think character is more important than the most devastating plot twist in fiction history. I believe that a character who gets into the reader’s head and (better) heart is the key to a memorable story.
Sometimes when I talk to groups about writing, I’ll survey the audience and ask for a show of hands: “How many people here have read, or seen, THE THIN MAN?” Many hands will go up; in the right audience (over 40), almost all the hands will go up.
So I’ll go on: “Now, how many people remember who the killer was revealed to be in THE THIN MAN?” On a strong night, two hands will remain raised.
“Okay,” I’ll say then, “who remembers Nick and Nora Charles?”
Every hand goes up.
Characters are our surrogates in the story sometimes. They are our nemeses. They are our companions in tough times, our compatriots through difficult but exhilarating adventures, our guides through unfamiliar territory. Characters in series sometimes become like old friends, or family—we’ll read the book or see the movie just to see how they’re doing these days.
I’m not saying plot isn’t important; of course it is. You can’t write a weak story and say, “Well, the characters will sustain it.” (Actually, sure you can. You can write that. I don’t recommend it, but you can.)
But come up with the twistiest, juiciest, most intriguing plot in the world, populate it with cardboard, dull characters, and even if you manage to draw an audience, the experience won’t be what you’d hope to create. Ask those people in a year what happened in that book, and they’ll ask which one that was, again.
But ask them about Indiana Jones, or Spenser, or Miss Marple, or Superman and they’ll respond immediately. Some will get a dopey smile on their faces. That’s what I hope for as a writer; it’s the face one puts on for a lost love from decades ago, a favorite, a special memory.
Where was the body hidden and how did the killer manage to keep the police from finding the gun? Go remember.
Nick and Nora Charles? You should see the dopey grin on my face right now.
Nick and Nora? Lord Peter and Harriet? Who are your most memorable characters, dear readers? Let us know, and one lucky commentor will win a copy of CHANCE OF A GHOST, the 4th Haunted Guesthouse mystery!
E.J.Copperman is the author of the Haunted Guesthouse mystery series, whose latest entry THE THRILL OF THE HAUNT will be poltergeisting its way to your bookseller on November 5. E.J. lives, teaches and writes in New Jersey (and teaches sometimes in Philadelphia), and can be found at www.ejcopperman.com. You can read more from EJ at the blog Sliced Bread, friend EJ on Facebook, and follow EJ on Twitter as @ejcop.