Weak Characters from Plot Writers? The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

I read a lot of fiction; largely novels, titles pulled from readers’ choice or bestseller lists regardless of genre or authors, downloaded from the library in ebook format. Every book is a surprise, a challenge. Some less so because of the title or the cover, but still, in almost every case I haven’t read any previous works by the author.

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I do this because I want to be unprepared, tested on my critiquing and editing skills, and educated on why, in a variety of genres, a book might be considered good. There have been novels of all types, and I probably finish over 90% of what I start. Romances make up much of the failed portion; the clichéd writing or clichéd characters or clichéd situations—sometimes all three within the first few pages—are more than I can handle, but there are others.
The Goldfinch: A Novel for example, disappointed me with its inconsistent writing and because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere of interest to me, and I couldn’t sustain enough interest in The Paris Wife to finish it.

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta, is the first one that I’ve started, put aside because of marginal interest, then later picked it up and finished.

The writing is mostly okay. There are a few clunker sentences that stand out but generally it’s not bad, and there is good use of sentence length and style for variety and for different types of situations. Dialogue is okay and there are some strong elements in how the plot works its way through. Contrasted with that, though, are some predictable elements (damaged character finds release through vengeance killing/death), and some strains on belief (bad guy turns out to be manipulated by the true bad guy, who was a spiritual guide to a main character and a peripheral figure, but in reality is a psychopath?), but my biggest issue is with the characters.

The reason that I put the novel aside some months ago was because I couldn’t get into the characters. My distaste started with the names; Kent Austin, plus older brother (and first born of three children, obviously, given his name) Adam Austin. Then a high school girl named Rachel Bond whose father turns out to be Jason Bond (some combination of Jason Bourne and James Bond? No, just a normal guy in prison). These, and others, felt like names you give to characters in your first draft, then multiple drafts and three name changes later you’ve come up with better ones.

The characters have, well, characteristics. Drinking or religion, football player sized bodies, jobs, relationships to each other, histories, roles in the story, emotion-like reactions to situations. But they’re flat figures and feel like a compendium of traits rather than a personality with facets. This is a little different from Dan Brown and his cardboard cutouts that he uses to execute the plot. Kortya has spent time adding elements to his characters and has tried to be consistent in terms of how that character might react to a given situation, but he fails to make them breathe on their own. Like Dr. Frankestein he has collected the parts but, unlike the good doctor, he can’t find the spark of life. There are moments that are close; thinking about the property that they might buy to start a new life together, and other internal, intimate moments that don’t feel so force fed by the plot and that make the characters almost human, but there aren’t enough. Instead, the characters are mostly puppets, doing and purporting to feel what the script requires them to do, not quite feeling or thinking or seeing or experiencing as if they were real people.

This brings me to my reason for this post: is this a weakness of a stereotypical plot oriented writer, this problem of building characters from a collection of traits but not quite creating real people? Is the Prophet is a good example because it’s almost, but not quite, there? Is it like an unskilled casting agent who brings in bodies to fit the roles: celebrities, or athletes, or cute kids for Disney shows, but not actors who can act? Should they instead have used actors who can bring the characters to life? Who will study the character, understand how they work, know how to integrate and develop and use those traits and how to present a believable, interesting, relatable character?

But that’s the author’s job; to pull the character’s skin over his own, to experience the role and to report to the reader what is happening (or to stand outside the characters and report, but still you need to understand your characters well enough so they act like humans, or at least like interesting sentient beings if you’re writing fantasy). The POV for The Prophet is close third person and we spend time inside the head of many characters, but rarely does it feel like the head of a living, three-dimensional human.

The villains are the worst examples. They’re bad, just because, they’re bad. The term psychopath is brought up by the investigator, and Koryta uses that as carte blanche to not have to explain why the mastermind does anything he does, thereby limiting the fear or care that he produces. He’s simply the bad guy, the one who has to die to end the story. The other villain has a little more backstory supplied by his brother, but when confronted he’s pretty easily duped and disposed of.

Again, it’s not awful. It can be done, using antagonists that have limited dimensions when the primary story is how they force the protagonists to work out their issues, but if the protagonists are not fully flesh and blood, having thin foils makes it worse.

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