Making Sure Your Characters Actually DO Something

I recently read the not-very-good-at-all book The Christmas Thief, by Mary and Carol Higgins Clark. I had quite a few complaints about it–the plot was dull, the characters didn’t grow or change during the story, there were too many characters to keep track of, and the conflict was contrived and ridiculous–but there is one main point that I’d like to discuss. The idea of making sure your characters’ actions matter.

The basic premise of the plot of The Christmas Thief is a modern-day story in a How the Grinch Stole Christmas style, where the crook Packy Noonan plots to steal the Christmas tree that is destined for Rockefeller Center in New York. Packy’s motivations are simple enough. Years ago he conned a bunch of rich folks out of millions of dollars, then he invested that money in a bunch of huge diamonds because it was safer than keeping it in the bank. Before he was arrested, he hid the container of diamonds in a spruce tree at a farm he used to work at. When he gets out of jail, Packy and his minions go  to Vermont to retrieve the diamonds from the tree so they can flee the country. But the twist is that people from Rockefeller Center are going to cut the tree down the next day so it can be taken to New York and decorated for Christmas. Packy cuts down the tree the night before so he can retrieve his diamonds, while the rest of the country wonders why anyone would steal the soon-to-be Christmas tree.

To me, this actually sounds like the formula for a pretty fun story. There’s a mystery to be explored when the investigators try to deduce who would steal the tree, why, and what they did with it. It’s the way the authors addressed these questions that left me dissatisfied.

I’m going to break down how this “mystery” was “solved” into three different categories of “Things the Authors Did Wrong”: Coincidences, Handouts, and Villain Mistakes.

Coincidences:

The Christmas Thief relied on far too many coincidences for my liking. I could handle the coincidence that the one tree in the world with millions of dollars of diamonds in it was the one being cut down for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, because that coincidence causes problems for Packy and escalates the conflict. What I couldn’t handle was how many coincidences were involved in the investigators “solving” the crime.

First, the investigators (a team of half a dozen people whose roles in the story were so blended together that I couldn’t distinguish them as individual people) happened to include one of the rich folk Packy conned out of millions of dollars before he went to prison. This woman then just happened to spot one of Packy’s minions while she was cross-country skiing. Then Packy just happened to go outside for fresh air while she was snooping around. Then the investigators just happened to bump into a kid who’d seen the kidnapped woman hanging around the cabin where Packy was hiding out. The investigators then rushed off to rescue the kidnapped woman, who was able to reveal Packy’s entire plan to them because she’d overheard it all while she was kidnapped.

At no point during all of this do the investigators make an important discovery on their own. They spend half the book sending around flyers with their missing friend’s picture on them without making any real progress. And they have absolutely no idea what Packy is up to or that he’s the one who stole the tree until the kidnapped woman tells them. So instead of “investigating,” the investigators wander around looking for their lost friend (who they don’t even know has been kidnapped–for all they know at this point she just got lost). The investigators don’t uncover a single clue on their own, they don’t deduce a way to find where their kidnapped friend is, and they don’t figure out on their own what Packy is up to. In fact, you could have cut the investigators out of the plot COMPLETELY and had the kidnapped woman escape on her own and call the police, and the story would have been exactly the same, at half the length. That’s right, it’s like a Sherlock Holmes story where the mystery could solve itself while Holmes just took a nap the whole time.

Handouts:

While the investigators are searching for their friend, they actually do learn a lot about what Packy is up to in Vermont. But not because of their own investigation. Clues are handed to them from outside sources without any effort on the part of the main characters.

On three separate occasions, one of the investigators (a reporter) gets a call from her editor back in the city. He tells her that when Packy skipped out on his parole, witnesses saw Packy getting into a van with Vermont plates. He tells her that Packy’s prison cellmate overheard him sleep-talking and muttering the name of the very town they’re in. He tells her about the flatbed truck police found, which Packy planned to use to haul the tree away. If not for the editor’s phone calls, the investigators would never have known Packy was in the area or up to anything suspicious. Really, the investigators didn’t discover anything on their own without someone else just calling them up and handing them the information.

I’d rather have seen the investigators coming up with their own ideas. Even if they then had to make a phone call to the editor to follow up on the lead, that at least shows the investigators getting a hunch and having it work out. That would be better than outside characters constantly bringing all the important information in.

Villain Mistakes:

Packy never would have been caught if he hadn’t been working with idiots.

Packy’s minions, Benny and Jo Jo, were basically Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Then there’s the poet Milo, whose house Packy and the gang were hiding at. First, Benny and Jojo come to pick him up in a van with Vermont license plates and skis on the roof, giving away where Packy was going. Then they leave one of Milo’s poems in the flatbed truck they were using for the robbery. Then they openly discuss their plans in front of the kidnapped woman so she knows where they’re going next. Then they use Milo’s car for the getaway, and the investigators recognize it as the poet’s car and know that’s who they need to follow.

I don’t expect a villain to have a perfect plan, but all of this was ridiculous. The investigators didn’t need to figure anything out on their own because the clues they needed were just dropped into their laps.

Characters in any novel need to have agency. Their actions need to matter. In The Christmas Thief, events just kind of happen on their own and the main characters are just along for the ride. A more effective novel would have made sure that each stage of the plot was driven forward by the characters, their decisions, and the consequences of their actions. A coincidence here and there is fine, but major discoveries shouldn’t come about by way of coincidence. They should occur when the main characters investigate and work hard to earn the discovery. Major plot elements shouldn’t be handed to the characters by outside sources. The characters should have to uncover them on their own. And dumb mistakes by the bad guy should never work out in the good guys’ favor.

Most of my favorite novels are character-driven. The characters’ actions should matter. The major turning points of the plot should either be victories the characters achieve based on their actions or failures based on their mistakes. They should be influential. If a character can be deleted from the plot without the entire structure falling apart without them, then they’re not doing their job. Make your main characters the threads that hold everything together. Make them actually do something important.

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2 thoughts on “Making Sure Your Characters Actually DO Something”

  1. You might enjoy the Junior Bender novels by Timothy Hallinan, or the Poke Rafferty ones, also by him (like THE QUEEN OF PATPONG). They’re sort of like, what if a Gentleman Adventurer like Travis McGee also had a family, and you had to schedule escapades around your daughter’s play practice? They are also very character-driven, and the coincidences actually make sense.

    1. That sounds pretty interesting. I’ve always wondered why so many books remove the family element. The obvious answer is that it’s easier; the “orphan hero” or “last member of one’s clan” tropes make it easier for the main character to go on their adventure without worrying about loose strings. An adventurer who has to worry about family at the same time sounds like something I could get on board with.

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