Mar 14 2011 1:00pm

Can Great Characters Save a Bad Plot?

LighthouseCan great characters save a bad or flawed plot? A flawed or bad plot is like fleeing a blind date and then getting a flat tire on the way home on the side of a deserted road. But when you finally see the red lights on top of the tow truck, like a beacon in the night, you feel the stirrings of hope. That’s how I feel when I’m in the middle of a book with a plot that seems all kinds of wrong. I begin hanging my hopes on the characters, hoping I will like them enough to keep reading. So—can they? And which ones do it best?

Of course, there are those beloved characters I can’t get enough of. So whether the plot is great, lukewarm, or exceedingly bad, I’ll continue reading the book.  For these special characters the author could pretty much do anything. They could have the character drive to NY and tap-dance naked in the middle of Times Square during a snowstorm at the height of rush hour after being told they need to get a dozen eggs at the corner store, and I’d forgive the non sequitur in the plot. That is, if I love the character(s) enough.

Here to Stay by Catherine AndersonThat’s certainly how I feel about Eve and Roarke from J.D. Robb’s In Death series. It doesn’t matter what crime du jour Eve is in the middle of investigating, I’m buying and reading the next In Death book. I want to know more about Eve and her billionaire husband; for me these characters continue to be the driving force behind the plot. Now if Eve and Roarke ever got divorced, well then, there better be a damn good plot to sustain that abomination.

Recently I’ve read a few books where the plots were tragically flawed, but I slogged through all the misadventures and continued to read because I wanted to know what happened to the characters. Catherine Anderson’s Here To Stay comes to mind. The heroine, Mandy, has about two hundred too many problems, but despite them I liked her. I enjoyed her spunk, her stick-to-it-ness, and her ability to continue to hope, despite the tragedy she endured. She reminded me a lot of a young Mary Richards. That is, if Mary had never met Rhoda or Mr. Grant, and if she had an abusive childhood, a bleak future, money problems, and was raising a blind brother who hated her.

Mandy evokes feelings of empathy because despite her own tragic and numerous (and I do mean numerous) problems she was all about giving back and helping others. And despite a plot that painted her as a victim and sometimes a wimp, I believe she rises above that by eventually taking a stand and becoming a woman who takes back her power; making her a character I cared about and wanted to see succeed.

As for the hero Zach, well he’s part of the Harrington Family and I’ve been reading and loving this family through books like Morning Light and Star Bright and I just had to find out how his life turned out. My curiosity, and his steadfastness, created a character I admired. 

So despite the many flaws in this book, including:

  • a religious angle that was not an organic or integral part of the book
  • a “no sex until we’re married” policy that was abandoned fifty pages before the book ends, giving us four sex scenes in a row
  • and a heroine who took a long time to find her voice

I couldn’t put this book down. The characters continued to fascinate and interest me. So yes, for me, Mandy and Zack were my beacons in the night and they rescued the plot.

Pleasure Me by Monica BurnsBut when the characters aren’t strong enough, and the plot is flawed, well, that’s a different story. It brings to mind Monica Burns’ new release Pleasure Me which has been heralded as a great book and a must-read by many reviewers and readers alike. I have to go on record as saying I have an opposing and minority opinion. Yes, it was a well-written book; unfortunately, the characters did not grab or hold my attention enough to save a plot that I felt was rather silly.

(SPOILER AHEAD) It seems our hero, Garrick, was born with only one testicle. That’s it, that’s his deep, dark secret. And that is the tragedy that drives this virgin hero and the action in this book. As a plot device, having a physical deformity to create tension is often used and often a good stratagem. The character with the deformity, whether they are brave and hopeful or depressed and miserable, are more often than not interesting characters. Not so much here. Garrick is certainly a likeable enough character: he does charity work, takes care of his brothers and sisters, and has overcome an abusive childhood. But Garrick’s fear that people will discover he was born without a testicle colors his entire life.

I think if he was missing an arm or a leg I could have had more sympathy for him. Is that because I’m a woman? Perhaps if it were Ruth, our heroine, who was missing her breasts I would have had more understanding and affinity for the situation. As it was, I just couldn’t put myself in Garrick’s shoes; I truly did not understand his feelings of inadequacy and fear of discovery.  And because I could not empathize with the protagonist in a plot I felt was one-dimensional, there was little for me to hang my hat on. 

So much of the underlying tension in the book revolved around Garrick’s fears that someone would discover he was missing a testicle. There is the courtesan/heroine he loses his virginity to and then falls in love with, the miscreant of an uncle, and the villainous viscount—all of whom could potentially turn away in disgust or threaten to expose him. I quickly became tired and uninterested in his plight. I wanted to say “man up, get on with your life.” Garrick has a rich and full life. He’s a titled and wealthy man, with a family who loves him. He is also a good-hearted man who spends countless hours and money helping orphaned children. These are good things. Being loved and respected by his family and helping others less fortunate should have given him a broader perspective of the world at large. Unfortunately, this was not the case and he just couldn’t get past his own physical issues to see how great his life really was regardless of his missing testicle, until of course, the love of a good woman helped him see that he was still a man. Consequently, this character was more like red lights and alarm bells blaring during an emergency exit instead of the warm glow of a beacon in the night helping to glue together the calamities of a plot I didn’t care about.

I’m curious: Have you read any books where the characters saved the plot, or didn't?

Lighthouse image courtesy of NeitherFanboy via Flickr.


Marisa O’Neill is the Vice President of, managing television productions and everything else in life. She has a sense of humor and some very interesting opinions.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I absolutely agree that great characters can save the plot. Not a book example, but my favorite TV show (Battlestar Galactica) was horrible by the end and totally broke my heart--yet I stuck with it for the characters that I'd fallen for in Season 1.
Virginia Campbell
2. VirginiaCampbell
For me, storytelling is all about the characters. I must care about the people and want to follow their story and find out what happens to them. Even the supporting players, the not so nice people, and especially the villains should be well-drawn and multi-layered. Minor characters, sharply etched in a few well-chosen words, add such rich flavor to a story line. I like characters who are basically defined around the edges, but still flexible enough to be surprised and revised. A "complete change of character" is not really believable, and it's also not very interesting. It's the little flaws, "uh-ohs", and "ahs" that make for a readable character. I enjoy series books as long as each entry is worthy of its own space and not just a weak extension of the original story concept. Trilogies are the perfect size for series, and four well-written books can also make a great series. Beyond that number and the creative process and quality control has to really be sharp. Trilogies can allow certain characters to develop through the first two books before they become fully-fleshed in the final book, and that can be very rewarding for the reader. I read more stand-alones than series. However, when I am hooked on a series, I will collect the entire set. Whether it’s great characters or an intriguing story line, or both, I’ll stay with it until the end. I do believe that some characters and scenarios are better suited to one intense edition that’s perfect just as it is–don’t mess with it! Some story lines work better on a larger scale, and they might just be too much for one book. They develop more slowly, with characters coming and going along the way. In the final analysis, it’s always the ability of the storyteller to spin a great tale that makes the difference.

Having said all that, I would like to add something about "Pleasure Me" by Monica Burns. I have ordered the book and expect it in my mailbox very soon. I have read the first three chapters online through Monica's website, and I very much look forward to reading Garrick and Ruth's story. "Pleasure Me" has a story line which really hits home for me on a number of different levels. I have a hereditary thyroid disease which exploded like a bomb around the time I turned thirty. At first, I started to lose my hair, my speech became extremely rapid, and I lost a tremendous amount of weight. After having radiation to effectively "kill" my thyroid, the sypmptoms reversed and I quickly began to regain weight while my body became a study in slow motion. Medication which is supposed to give me a normal thyroid range also has its side effects. My looks and my life were changed forever by this disease, which is very disheartening for a woman living in a world where beauty is idolized. I can relate to both Garrick and Ruth. I am 52, and I really do not like "Cougar" themes. "Pleasure Me" is a different kind of love story about a man and a woman who are different from the accepted standards of perfection, but together they work perfectly well. Brava, Monica : )
Alie V
3. ophelial
A lot of people say that this is what the Twilight series became for them by Breaking Dawn. I can understand that since the plot did become quite loopy with Nessie and all.
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