Tag Archives: character

Nothing Gets Past Hercule Poirot

PoirotOne of the most influential fictional detectives, Hercule Poirot, achieved a unique fame during his literary life. Created by Agatha Christie, he appeared in thirty-three novels, numerous more short stories, and upon his death became the only fictional character whose obituary was published in The New York Times. Although his creator despised him as a character, Poirot’s fans loved him. Recently, Poirot died a second time with the final portrayal by David Suchet, who played the Belgian detective in an adaptation of every story Christie wrote about him, ending a lengthy career with his final story, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

Poirot may not be the most famous fictional detective. He has not entered popular culture the way Sherlock Holmes has; Christie, unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, did not choose to bring him back from his death, making his demise far more permanent than Holmes’s. But he is one of the most important detectives in the genre, relying on his “little grey cells” and watching the world with a meticulous eye. Perpetually calculating, though always a gentleman, he is far from the theatrically awkward, over-the-top socially inept kind of detective so common today, ranging from Batman to Dexter Morgan. Instead, Poirot falls into the believably quirky set of detectives, Miss Marple, Inspector Morse, Nero Wolfe, and Colombo. He is self-assured, confident, slightly neurotic, easily discomforted, and obsessive. His fans love him for many of the same reasons Christie hated him.

For many Poirot fans including myself, it is impossible to think of the detective without also thinking of Suchet’s portrayal. When I read Christie’s novels and stories, I hear Suchet’s light, Belgian accent, his distinct articulation, and his intonation whenever Poirot speaks. I picture Suchet with a curled mustache, cautious eyes, and fine suit when I read Poirot’s descriptions. Like many Poirot fans, I watched Suchet’s final performance with great difficulty because I knew it was his last act. But his adaptation is so fine-tuned after decades of practice, watching Poirot wither away in a wheelchair and struggle to solve an impossible case made me cringe. I know it was only an adaptation, but I would like to think that Suchet would have made Christie admire her Belgian detective, even though she loathed him by the end.

Bringing Poirot to life was Suchet’s magnum opus as an actor, or so I thought. Now I know the importance of bringing a character to death, to place him in the grave with dignity, to do justice to his final breaths and make audiences lament their loss. Suchet prompted such a lament.


Plot and Character/Character and Plot

PlotsRecently in a screenwriting class I am taking, the instructor discussed a list of key elements in storytelling, and in that list plot preceded character. A friend turned to me and said, “Character should come first.” I agreed with him, but for a long time I wondered why, in a screenwriting class, plot might come first. In my own writing, I try to put character before plot, because I believe that stories are a direct product of thoroughly developed stories.

However, I realized that there are countless examples of stories that put plot before character, and most of them, I think, tend to be blockbuster movies or out-of-this-world TV series. In plot-based stories, the conflict does not come from the characters; it comes from external forces, such as alien invasions, nameless monsters, the emergence of zombies, stock criminals, static gangsters, or in a post-9/11 world, faceless terrorists with no personality. For me, these stories tend not to be memorable. The characters don’t fight complex issues, face moral ambiguity, or struggle with self-doubt. Instead, these stories are driven only by a quota of bad guys to kill.


In contrast, it seems that characters themselves are what we remember most about stories. James Bond, for instance, is not a mindless thug but a charming, intelligent, and classy hero; the Daleks are terrifying villains because they remind us that each great society has attempted to exterminate a weaker one. The Dude in The Big Lebowski remains prophetic because he is the only calm figure in a world of fascists and nihilists. Jane Eyre’s wit amidst her plight continues to make her a compelling protagonist. Hamlet is still a pitied hero because he is effectively an angst-ridden teenager. Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation is a hero for our own time because of her valiant optimism when cynicism is the norm. Many young readers see themselves in Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, and I personally see what I want to become in Doc from Cannery Row.

I think that all great stories must be driven by character, and not just a ticking time bomb or the gradual buildup of generic bad guys. Characters execute the plot idiosyncratically. They alone have the power to turn the story around, reverse the trajectory audiences follow, and make decisions relevant to contemporary issues. The characters Bilbo Baggins and Smaug may simply be updated versions of David and Goliath, but they are household names because they are unique; they remind us of our extremes, insignificance and ego, and the courage and fear therein; and Bilbo makes a far more intriguing character because he has the option to stay home, or turn back, or steal from the Dwarves. Smaug is equally intriguing because he has already won long before the tale begins, but cannot resist inviting more conflict. These stories are truly great because their authors let the characters move the story, rather than the other way around.