Since hearing about the death of Robert B. Parker a few months ago, I’ve eased the pain of losing one of my favorite mystery writers by going to my shelf and taking down a stack of his books and immersing myself again in the worlds that he spent his life creating.
His novels about a private detective named Spenser have captivated me over the years with Spenser’s brashness, his wise-guy humor, and his tough exterior hiding a sensitive (and highly literate) soul. Only in Parker’s novels will you find a sharp-shooting hulk quoting lines from writers like e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, or Henry David Thoreau as well as being conversant in the nuances of Freudian psychology.
Spenser is a bit of a modern-day knight, chivalrous to a fault (even while being unapologetically sexist), as well as a combination of Philip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes (with Hawk, his African-American cohort in detection in place of Watson), and Humphrey Bogart, all mixed into one.
Add to the mix Parker’s dexterity at constructing plot-lines that keep the pacing quick, the reader’s curiosity high, and the tension taut, and you’ve got all the ingredients for the successful writing career that Parker carved out for himself after publishing his first novel more than thirty years ago.
After reading almost a dozen of Parker’s books in the past few weeks, I started thinking about why I find myself so drawn to his work (aside from the reasons listed above), and I believe it has to do with a concept that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call resistance (in keeping with our water and swimming metaphor).
If you read enough books on writing, you know that for a plot to work successfully, the author has to offer the main character a number of obstacles to stand in the character’s path and keep that character from easily attaining his or her goal.
It was while re-reading Spenser that I began to see how these obstacles function in relation to the character. They don’t simply stand in his way like a parking meter or a lamp post that he can simply walk around. No, the obstacles themselves are obstacles precisely because they keep Spenser from obtaining the knowledge that he needs to solve the crime.
In other words, these obstacles offer him resistance. They give Spenser something to push against (and, often, they push back) while giving the reader a sense of Spenser’s courage and determination and fortitude to keep pursuing what he needs. They are obstacles because they require Spenser to push past them –and to keep pushing harder and harder until he can overcome their resistance– in order to move forward and get closer to understanding the mystery that he’s been hired to solve.
What constitutes an obstacle strong enough to offer resistance to Spenser? Well, often, it’s simply his own ignorance, not knowing how to move forward to solve a particular case. He’ll know someone is dead but not why, or he’ll know someone is skimming money but not why, or he’ll learn someone is blackmailing someone... but not why. And as the story unfolds he has to come up with a plan to overcome his ignorance (move past this resistance) to learn more.
But ignorance isn’t the only obstacle he faces. Often, he’ll face a thug or gang of thugs who have orders to keep him from finding out what he wants to find out. And his personality, naturally, resists such suggestions, even when resistance might end up getting him killed, because his job requires that he not be afraid or turn away from danger. So he needs to push hard against the thugs, needs to conquer them (and the resistance that they provide) in order to maintain his own integrity, not merely gain the knowledge that he seeks to solve the crime.
Time–or lack of time–to solve a crime is sometimes a point of resistance, an element that may prevent Spenser from gaining his goal. Lies–or lack of truthfulness–from witnesses or from people hiring him or from dishonest lawyers or cops are also elements that stand in his way, offering resistance.
What I’ve learned from Parker’s novels over the past few weeks is that as a reader I need to feel this resistance in my bones, need to feel part of the action as Spenser goes about his business of trying to overcome the various obstacles that stand in his way of solving the crime. And I've learned that if I feel strongly about Spenser and his knight’s quest, it’s as much because of how he responds to the resistance as the things offering resistance.
Resistance is essential if you want to keep your character afloat... and your reader turning the pages... from the first page to the last.
For more on resistance and the connection between characters, obstacles and plot, visit:
And for more on Robert B. Parker, visit: