After studying philosophy for years, it became difficult for me to read fiction. I worked my way back into stories by listening to Neil Gaiman’s excellent recordings of his own excellent books, then Jim Butcher’s excellent Harry Dresden and Codex Alera novels, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s (a name I continue to find amusing) excellent Vorkosigan novels.
Recently, however, my focus has been on Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels. But I’ve also listened to a random scattering of others: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, John Sandford’s Rules of Prey, Jo Nesbo’s The Bat, Lee Child’s Killing Floor, and Alex Bledsoe’s horribly-named, but very good, The Sword-Edged Blonde.
(Why those and not others? They had good covers. I am not ashamed of this. I’ll write a post about it sometime.)
What I’ve noticed is something everyone else already knew: there are two kinds of mystery novels. There are stories where the “detective” is an interesting character, and stories where she or he is just there because someone has to discover the facts and stuff.
If I have to choose, I prefer the first type. The Flavia de Luce novels, for instance, are boring stories with a fascinating main character. I want to know how Flavia and her family turn out, so I keep borrowing them from the library. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night — the best mystery novel I’ve ever read — is also of this type. I hardly remember the central mystery; I remember the character development and “big themes.”
But why? If stories are important — and I think they are (though I’m not sure why; I’ll write a post about this sometime) — why do I prefer the stories with interesting characters and boring plots, over the ones with interesting plots and boring characters? Do I just prefer things to happen “inside” the characters rather than “outside” them, if I have to choose? Am I just emo?
Help me out here. Is character more important than plot, or do I have it backwards? Does that distinction even make sense? I’m genuinely confused (which is fun, for a philosopher).