The essential drivers of fiction: character and plot

We've now come to the end of the BBC's thriller Undercover, and there is pretty well universal agreement that somehow a very promising concept had turned out something close to a disaster. (Spoilers after paragraph 4.)

Watching the show, I was reminded of a talk I attended a while ago on the nature of psychological thrillers. The speaker explained that the difference between a psychological thriller and a murder mystery was that the thriller is character-driven, while the mystery is plot-driven. And it was made clear that, from the speaker's viewpoint, this made psychological thrillers a higher form of literature.

The reality is, I suspect, far less black and white. While it's true that the plot-driven 'puzzle solving' aspect of a murder mystery usually takes centre stage, very few modern murder mysteries ignore character - think of something like The Bridge, for instance. But there is still a feeling among writers of 'literary fiction' that character is far more important than plot.

Unfortunately, Undercover demonstrates exactly why this is a disastrous line to take. The characterisation was good, although like many pieces with a pretention of sophistication, the character still have a certain formulaic nature (good cop/bad cop, three children: the academic, the fun one and the challenging one). But the plot was more full of holes than a colander.

I've already moaned about the way that central character, undercover cop Nick, supposedly took on the cover of being a crime writer - but how could you use a cover occupation that required you to have existing published books? But there were far more holes than this. The biggest one was the lack of internal logic. We don't usually notice it, but all fiction should obey an internal logic. It doesn't have to be the logic of this world - fantasy, for instance, applies a different set of rules - but once the logic is established it has to be followed through. In Undercover, this didn't happen. For example, we had the security services killing two people to cover up the fact that someone who died in British custody had committed a murder in the US. But there was no possible reason why this needed such a drastic cover-up. It was totally implausible.

The killings and Nick's cover story were by no means the only holes. Other oddities were the introduction of apparently significant events that then never played a part in the plot (Maya's epilepsy, the confession by the handler), Maya's ability to sway the US Supreme Court against the use of lethal injections, and the way that Maya, who up to now has been regularly racked by uncontrollable emotion, quite happily chatted with the man who had shot her critically ill son (strictly speaking that was more a character failure than a plotting one). I could go on and on. It was a plotting disaster.

So, by all means have a piece of writing that is primarily character driven. But don't think that this gives you the excuse to play havoc with the internal logic of the piece. The result is just irritation and frustration for the reader/viewer.

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