Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Little Tin God of Character Development

I'm about halfway through Michael Crichton's State of Fear, and I've got to admit that I'm enjoying the heck out of it. The story is engaging, the pacing is relentless, the plotting is as tight as a drumhead, and all of this makes the book a fun read -- despite the fact that it doesn't seem to contain any characters.

I mean, the sigma character, Peter Evans, is a nullity. His entire backstory could be fit on a 3x5 card with room for doodling:
Corporate lawyer, Century City office, works with environmental organizations (business side), drives a gray Prius, nice apartment, casual girlfriend (aerobics instructor), naive mouthpiece often babbling "green" platitudes

Crichton's writing is even more spartan than Clancy's, if that's possible. Setting the scene? A short paragraph, if absolutely necessary. Describing someone's appearance? A sentence, if what they're wearing will become important. Getting inside someone's head? Only if it's absolutely critical to the plot and they'd look stupid talking to themselves. Interior life? We don't need no steenking interior life!

In short, everything that's usually regarded as essential to character definition and development is tossed overboard in order to keep the plot moving, and the story is revealed entirely by dialog and action. The characters don't have emotional crises; they don't spend pages wondering what someone else is thinking; they don't stop to talk about their troubled childhoods or relationship issues. They never pause for a moment to turn introspective and examine their feelings or ponder their real motivations, and it certainly doesn't appear as if any of them is going to experience profound emotional growth or change before the end of the book.

Hence my question. Crichton doesn't waste time on character development; neither does Tom Clancy and neither did Isaac Asimov. Is it possible that character development is vastly overrated, and that it's one of those things that's only necessary when you don't have an actual plot?

Or is it an either/or proposition, and are plot and character development are equally valid alternate paths to a complete story?

Or is it, as I'm increasingly coming to think, a gender issue? E.g., books written for male readers can survive perfectly well on plot alone, while books written for female readers (and men who secretly wish they were women, such as college creative writing instructors) don't rquire plot but will starve and die without lots of emotional sturm und drang?

What's your theory?