From Crime Reads:
People say you should never meet your heroes. When, in 2011, I sat next to David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) I was more worried for my hero meeting me. As the bright-eyed 81-year old leapt, smiling, to his feet, a kink of snow-white hair kicking up over the collar of his dinner jacket I made a pact with myself: Under no circumstances should I bring up the crime novel I am struggling to plot.
Crime novels (including spy novels) are best known for their plots. Almost all reviews of successful crime novels will talk about plot before they mention character. Grisham’s plots are “intricate”, Agatha Christie’s are “ingenious”, Ruth Rendell’s are “twisting”. But le Carre, this ex-spy and son of a confidence trickster, had pulled off the greatest literary trick of all: his plots were knotty and thrilling, but his characters were uncompromised by them. On the contrary, they always drove the story. How was I, a writer more interested in character than plot, but also intent on writing the kind of story you couldn’t put down, to take a leaf out of his book?
Heist movies, to my mind, epitomise the problem. They are well known for their plots—think The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, The Sting. The heist is brilliantly suited to the screen: the sleights of hand, the optical illusions, not to mention the car chases, all contribute to the thrilling ride of a clever story. But take a close look at the characters in them and you’ll see that, despite great acting, they rarely pass E.M. Forster’s test for “rounded characters”—rounded characters grow or change substantially during a story, flat characters do not. Perhaps this is why there are so few great “heist” novels. The book I was trying to write was not a heist, but its crime relied on several twists and tricks of the light. The problem was that they were bending my characters all out of shape.
“So when are going to ask me about your novel?” said David, twiddling his fork with a small smile. The creator of the great, flawed British spy George Smiley and of Karla, the silently watchful Soviet spymaster, had not been fooled by my prevarications around the journalism I had recently given up. I asked too many good questions, he told me dryly, to be a journalist.
So I confessed. I was working on a novel with a crime in it, but I had hit a wall. The characters had been living inside me for years now, and I had a premise, a good one I thought—but I was struggling to weave the kind of intriguing plot I admired in his writing without reducing the characters to pawns on a chessboard. Whenever I think of story, I lose the characters, I told him. And whenever I think of character, I lose my story.
“You need to remember this. The cat sat on the mat,” said David. “That’s not a story. But the cat sat on a dog’s mat. Now that’s a story.”
The following day I drew a small pen and ink line drawing and stuck it above my desk. Then I got to work. I started putting cats on mats. I pushed the crime into the wings and fleshed out the characters’ backstories. I thought about unsatisfied cats and reflected on dogs left out in the cold. I scribbled and wrote. When I stepped back the characters had tangled themselves into a cat’s cradle of a plot, born not just from story, but from what drove them.
Link to the rest at Crime Reads