Friday, March 06, 2009

Characters or Concepts?

I admit this week has been blog fail. A little bit with the content. A lotta bit with reading other blogs. Or reading anything actually that isn't SHARDS or comments on the Dollhouse entry I did. So clearly the Dollhouse entries will be continuing so Sarah and I can plot Joss Whedon's series for him—and because they're easy for content.

Something did come up during the discussion that's worth mentioning outside of the fandom. Characters versus concepts—what gets a reader/viewer and what keeps them?

Obviously with television there's an aspect that straight-prose can't share. Most people are visual creatures, attracted by shiny objects and pretty faces. I will absolutely pick up books with well-designed eye-grabbing covers. Like I'll watch TV series that have intriguing well-shot promo—or at least I'll go online to find out what the concept is.

I'll buy a book because I know the author who wrote it. I'll watch a show because I'm familiar with the actor or creator whose involved with it. Why else would we market things as "From the producer of..." or include the parathesis on synopsis after actor's names that tell you where you may have seen them before.

Where I'm going with this is that there are a lot of reasons you buy something or try it. (You're welcome for that information, says Empress Obvious.)

Once you've got me, however, you have to keep—and this series of tubes has ruined my attention span along with everyone else's. So what are you going to use to keep me reading/watching? Characters or concept?

In the ideal situation, I'll get both. That is why I love Reaper. I adore the characters. I'm amused by the concept. With Dollhouse, I like the concept but the main character is not someone I find likable. Echo's interesting, but it's curiosity and not concern for her well-being that keeps me watching. If she dies in episode four, my assumption is FBI Paul will continue his investigation and we'll see Echo's mystery solved.

Oh, mystery/conflict/plot by the way is the element that when well-done connects characters and concept. When poorly done, it bores or confuses the audience. Depending on who you are and what you need from a story, each of these elements may pull you through a work on their own, but most people won't love something that doesn't have all the elements working together.

If that wasn't challenging enough, there's the fact that different people respond to different combinations. Look at the chatter for Dollhouse. Some people love it. Some people don't get it. Most, hopefully, realize it just needs to figure out what the heck it wants to be. Not what genre—the go-anywhere with this style of the show is one of the things I find appealing. Thematically, I suppose, is what I'm inquiring about. What's our Big Picture—because it's Joss Whedon, he sees one.

It's an interesting thought exercise. Would you read a book with cliched, thin or heaven forbid boring characters because the concept was intriguing? Would you read a book with a concept that was painfully unoriginal because you loved the characters? If you had to choose between the two of them...?


KT said...

I would and to be honest DO, on both counts. But there has to be at least one of the two and if it does lack one element the other has to be bang on to keep me watching/reading.

(For example, I didn't really the characters of Sandman, but the ideas were fun enough to carry on. And the concept of Skullduggery Pleasant's plotline is fairly generic but I rabidly follow it on the strength of the title character.)

John Evans said...

A lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels want to present an interesting idea but don't really bother fleshing out the characters that make up the plot. I would point to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series as an example...most of the appeal is in the "permutations of ideas" rather than the characterization. (Of course, there are some pretty interesting characters in the series, like Salvor Hardin and The Mule.)

Of course, it's sometimes possible to have your cake and eat it too; Stephen R. Donaldson's writing is always motivated by powerful characters, but he also presents interesting ideas, whether it's the warp drive space society of the Gap series or the epic fantasy world of Thomas Covenant.

So, I guess my point is, I (and probably other sci-fi/fantasy fans) usually look for interesting ideas in what we read, first. Interesting characters are a welcome addition. The best writing has characters that drive the action and the "expression" of whatever sf/fantasy bits are appropriate. (The Black Company series by Glen Cook, the Amber series by Roger Zelazny...)

There is one example I can think of where the "new idea" was little more than a hook, and the characters kept me interested; the manga Midori Days. Turns out I'm a sucker for romance...

Now that I'm thinking about this and writing it all out, perhaps we're thinking of a false dichotomy here. We know that different people get different kinds of enjoyment out of a given artistic work. So, if we embrace that and develop different aspects of our work, we'll get more people enjoying it (and debating it! woo!).

And finally, I recently made a blog post about playing computer games that might be tangentially relevant here...

Chandra Rooney said...

Oh, definitely. I'm not suggesting one aspect is more important or should be considered more attractive. Just curious as to who goes for which one.

Zita said...

I've found that when I buy a book for the concept, I'm always more curious about where the author will go with it and don't much care about the characters.

But, when I find a book/series with characters I like, I will buy it regardless of plot. It takes quite a number of "thin" books before I will drop an author.

Sarah K said...

I just finished a series almost entirely to read more about the history as she envisioned it, because by the time the series ended, there were exactly two characters that I was interested in - one of whom had been killed in book 2. So an interesting concept can keep my attention despite annoying or cliched characters.

I've also read books that were horribly cliched, but the characters were written so well that I wanted to see how it played out.

My favourite books are the ones that manage to do both. But that's a given.

If I had to choose between boring characters with an awesome concept and awesome characters but a dumb concept, I'd be in a bind. Its a hard decision, but I'd probably lean towards the better concept and hope to the muses that characters improved in time. Unless the character issue is that they are horribly acted rather than poorly developed. I have more issues dealing with horrible acting than horrible writing.

Chandra Rooney said...

Terrible acting or at least inferior is a good point. Life on Mars UK is a rather simple concept at its heart, but it's the awesomeness of its actors that really brings the writing to life.

See the US remake which had pilot that was largely shot for shot--excluding location details--the same. Yet the lead actor couldn't emote as well as John Simm, and the whole thing falls flat on its face.

Rachel said...

Well, perspective and opinion as to what constitutes "good" is also going to be a huge factor. Many of the visual arts people I know didn't like the Sandman art and thought the characters were so/so. I loved it. Every bit of it. And the characters invaded my dreams.

Many people LOVED Dan Brown's DaVinci Code, and thought it was a wonderful story. I thought the concept was interesting, but that the characters were pretty thin. I read it. It was a page turner. I'm not going to go out and find any more books of his though.

Chandra Rooney said...

I liked the art in The Kindly Ones volume, Rachel.

But the rest of it, much like The Watchman, isn't that awe-inspiring, but it gets the job done.

The art in The Wake volume is very nice, too.