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Plot versus characterisation: a zero sum game?

Recently I haven’t had the best run of luck with books. I guess like everything, this waxes and wanes and isn’t 100% about luck but also about quality of judgement and the mood I am in when selecting and reading said book.

But still. It hasn’t been my best reading month. And although the novels I have read (or attempted to read – I haven’t always finished) this month haven’t obviously had a lot in common, it strikes me in retrospect that there has been a common issue running through this sorry month.

And that issue is: the plot versus characterisation conundrum. Now, it is obviously clear to all of us that the very best books have both awesome plot and awesome characterisation. Or is it? When I mentally flick back through novels I have known and loved this isn’t always true. Sometimes slightly sub standard characterisation can be glossed over by a challenging, fast-paced plot. Or vice versa. Rarely does a novel perfect both.

But this month I have felt more than ever it is becoming a zero sum game. 100% of one and 0 of the other. And weirdly with the last book I read, it switched from one to the other about ninety per cent of the way in.

Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw is mostly a character-driven book, like his other novels. It focuses on a small number of characters, tracking their lives and decisions back in time and place between the 1920s and 1960s and Indonesia, America, Holland, Paris and Malaysia. Yes , of course there is a plot line but the plot line feels like a foil to display the characters’ complexities and the challenging, complex issues they struggle with. It settles you into that focus, and though it is a good, rather than great, book you come to enjoy it for what it is.

Then: bam. About 90% of the way through the novel suddenly becomes plot-driven. Issues and complexities are suddenly discarded. Reunions go unexplained. Decisions go unreasoned. All in an attempt to wrap up the book. This isn’t the first time I have experienced this, but it is weird. It’s like a teenager who has been told to write a ten page essay and reaches page nine only half way though their argument. It feels lazy. And very disconcerting.


On thinking about it, I have decided I can accept that a lot (most) novels are imperfectly balanced between plot and character drivers. But this bait and switch is a step too far.


About bloggingthelonglist

An avid reader, but I tend to stick to what I know I am comfortable with. Trying to break out of the comfort zone...

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