I don’t read a whole lot outside of genre. That’s probably not a great idea, but what can I say? My To-Be-Read stack is taller than I am, and contains a number of manuscripts by friends and colleagues, as well as a fair number of books I am excited about by authors I don’t know. Add to that my being in the fortunate position of being occasionally asked to read a manuscript for a blurb, and there just isn’t a whole lot of time to get around to that monograph on the mating habits of the knobbed whelk.
But I do watch TV.
I’m a firm believer that producers of media had damn well better be consumers of it. Nothing in = nothing out. Garbage in = garbage out. TV is a quick way (with discrete boundaries) to make sure I’m getting stories in my head, getting to see the output of other writers (TV shows are written, ya know).
Lately, I’ve been following a few shows. Game of Thrones goes without saying (and hardly counts, I suppose, since it’s in genre). I’ve been watching Modern Family and Mad Men among others, and they are fantastic. Gripping. They have all the transportive and resonant effect I look for in my favorite stories.
And they’re pretty much plotless.
I’m not kidding. Nothing happens. Mad Men is about the staff of a Maidson Avenue advertising firm in the 60’s and their families. Modern Family is about three branches of an extended family that are … um … modern.
Each character is fully realized, complicated, quirky, lovable. Each character acts in their own interests, which inevitably brings them into conflict with the characters around them, who act in turn, and wackiness ensues.
And I’m not kidding. Nothing happens.
Case in point: In one of my favorite Mad Men episodes, the protagonist decides to surprise his wife with a weekend getaway. They go away for the weekend, get into a fight. He storms off, comes back to find she’s gone. He searches for her frantically, then finally gives up and goes home to find she’s there. They fight some more. The end.
In one of my favorite Modern Family episodes, A husband/father’s wife and daughters all go on the same menstrual cycle and become emotionally charged at once, overwhelming him and his young son. Meanwhile, a man connives to prove that he didn’t lose his tupperware dish, it was actually hidden in a family member’s cabinet.
See? Plotless. Nothing happens. And it’s fantastic.
I just watched the first episode of Hatfields and McCoys tonight. Now, that may be based on a historical episode, but the fact remains that what little plot there is is a product of well realized characters who are setting goals, moving toward them and coming in conflict with one another.
Now you have less of this in science-fiction and fantasy. By its very nature, SF/F is more “plotty,” as the speculative elements normally accrue to the setting or world outside the characters (the Others in A Song of Ice and Fire. The Chandrian in the Kingkiller Chronicles, the magic at the core of the earth in The Demon Cycle). But I still think the very best SF/F, the stories that truly take me away from myself, are the more character heavy. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t the blockbuster it is because Westeros is such a unique dreamscape. Martin isn’t doing a whole hell of a lot we haven’t seen before. We love it because we are crazy for Tyrion, or we want to watch Joffrey pay for his crimes, or we want to know if Robb will ever avenge his family and throw down the Lannisters. We’re hooked on the the Lies of Locke Lamora not because Lynch has done something particularly special with the magic or the setting (it’s 16th C. Venice, basically), but because Locke really is a gentleman bastard, and that contradiction is so delicious to watch that we can’t wait to see what happens to him next.
People are pack animals at the root of it. We’re social, tribal. We’re fascinated by one another. I’ve said this in many interviews: All stories are, ultimately, about people. Richard Adams’ Watership Down? It was about rabbits … that were people. Kirkman’s The Walking Dead? The zombies are background noise for a story about people.
Every time I think of a great piece of film, television or literature, I always come down to the same thing: I loved it not because of the amazing plot, the fabulous conceit, the incredible prose. All of those things are sizzle. The steak is the characters and always will be. It’s why romantic comedy and situation comedy are so impressive to me. Faceless terrorists hiding a bomb in a public building is a plot device that can drive characters to do cool things. A malevolent dark lord who is locked away behind a magical barrier can have a similar effect. But a lot of the best television has none of those things. It is simply people with agendas rubbing up against one another.
It is a thing I hold close as I write my third novel under contract and pitch new ones. If I’m ever going to be good at this job, my characters are going to have to seriously sing.