I learned a new word

Hi Gang. Craig with you again, and I learned a new word. (Not that I’m likely to remember it at my age, but writing it down helps.) I’m sharing it here, because it’s also an obscure kind of story structure. I can see that it has merit under some circumstances.

The word is picaresque. It basically means a kind of story that deals with episodic adventures of a usually roguish protagonist. They usually feature a character from the lower class. In one of these novels, there isn’t much character development, and a fairly shallow plot. The fun comes from the charismatic protagonist and the adventures involved.

Sounds pretty lousy, am I right? That was my first blush too, but I did a little bit more digging. Most of the examples get around to referring to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That one sold a few copies.

Let’s pick at those rules a bit. A string of adventures typically means they’re supposed to be fun, but they could be grim. Lack of a character arc does not mean you have a flat and uninteresting character. It means the character is already developed and interesting from the get-go. Maybe read that last part again to let it sink in.

Let’s pick at the character, too. Whenever I see the word “usually” it’s a green light to break the rules. As we get deeper into this, my examples are about people on lower rungs of the ladder. They live in a world where there are people above them who hold a lot of power. Some random ideas of my own might be a freed gladiator, a military sergeant, a social rights campaigner, a biker, even a pool hustler.

There are some similarities to what I wrote about the ongoing series a few months ago. You can review that post here. Those don’t have a massive character arc either, but for a different reason. If you want the series to continue, you need a recurring character that readers will be familiar with.

When I first learned about these, my mind went specifically to road films. Let’s consider National Lampoon’s Vacation. Clark W. Griswold walks into the story exactly the same as he is at the end. He wants to take his family on a nice vacation to a place called Wally World. The whole story is about the journey and not the destination. It’s a sequence of adventures that occur along the way. Subsequent Vacation films work much the same way.

These don’t have to be comedy by anyone’s rules, it’s just an option. These could be any number of wagon train type tales, Mad Max style post-apocalyptic stories, or even a collection of pirate adventures.

If you think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark fits the mold. Indiana Jones is the roguish character and he doesn’t have much development over the course of the story. He’s chasing a McGuffin, but I never saw where that was denied as part of a picaresque story line. Individual bits included South America, the university, Tibet, Egypt, the Mediterranean, and a lonely island somewhere.

For me, I like a good character arc and some growth along the way. I think a decent plot helps. I can tell from my recent research and some projects I’ve worked on in the last few years, that it isn’t absolutely necessary. However, abandon these principles at your peril. (And have a good plan.)

The picaresque story sounds like graduate level stuff to me, but I can acknowledge some that worked well. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely go that direction. (My Lanternfish books have many of the earmarks, though.) What about you? Is this a style of novel you might try one day? Do you have your own Odyssey or Grapes of Wrath somewhere waiting to be written? Have you written one? Tell me about it in the comments.

53 thoughts on “I learned a new word

  1. What an interesting word, Craig. I have to admit it’s a new word and concept for me too. Without character development through the plot, you would absolutely have to have a strong and compelling storyline that can run the gamut. Your example about National Lampoon’s Vacation is great. You are right. Clark did not learn anything through the entire story. He stayed the same. It’s an intriguing concept. I don’t know that I would ever try it, but who knows. 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm. I’ve never heard of that term before, but I’m wondering if my Adventures in Sorcery books might fit it. The main character, Marissa Cobalt, is a young mercenary sorceress (with a bit of a reputation). In the first book, there is an overall goal (defeat the main villain) but she has many adventures along the way (with maybe a little character growth). The other book is basically a collection of her earlier adventures, but you also see her grow a little as she ages. The books are also pretty much just lighthearted fun.

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  3. So interesting, Craig. I can see how critical it is to have a great character to keep the story interesting. A character-driven novel with a shallow arc and shallow plot! That sounds so hard to do, but I can see how you might excel at this. Comedy and/or interesting hurdles. Fascinating post.

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  4. There are quite a few classics that fit into that definition, and it has something of the rebel and the character that manages thanks to his/her wits against the odds, and it’s also true it includes a fair bit of social commentary (and in some cases, a fair bit of criticism as well). In Spanish “El Lazarillo de Tormes” is a well-known and famous classic from the XVI century that was published anonymously as it was quite critical of mainstream religion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazarillo_de_Tormes). I resisted reading it when I was young, thinking it would be boring, but when I got to read it later, I loved it. Francisco de Quevedo, a famous Spanish author of the XVII century wrote “La vida del Buscón”, also a picaresque novel. It seems the origin of the word is Spanish, but there are examples everywhere (Tristam Shandy, Tom Jones, and even the Pickwick Papers, and Miguel de Cervantes also wrote a few). There are some modern examples and authors influenced by it, and your comment about Indiana Jones makes perfect sense. I think nowadays it might be more common to find sidekicks or comedy characters that would fit the genre more than a full novel written in that style, but there are some fantastic examples worth reading, although I can’t imagine I’d write a picaresque novel myself.
    Thanks, Craig.

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    • Outstanding comment! Thanks for sharing that with us. I’ll visit that link. I noticed Don Quijote mentioned when I did the research. I wanted modern references for the post. I don’t know if I’d go that direction completely, but I can see the merit.


  5. Pingback: #Reblog Alert – Craig Boyack’s #StoryEmpire Post “I Learned a New Word” | The Write Stuff

  6. Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite characters of all time. I can see how he perfectly fits the mold as you’ve described picaresque. I remember reading Tom Jones way back in the day and really enjoying it, but that’s the only example I can think of. I usually prefer character arcs, but every now and then I could see myself enjoying another read like these two.

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  7. I read Tom Jones, Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair in my late teens and I think the lack of character development is compensated for a little in the social satire that the protagonist exposes and exploits. I’ve revisited Vanity Fair a few times but in the main I return to books with a character arc where I feel for the protagonist rather than cheer on the antics from the sidelines. Fascinating post, Craig!

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  8. Like Staci, I thought of Pirates of the Caribbean and Jack Sparrow. I’ve read some mysteries with a criminal protagonist trying to step ahead of the law, too, but can’t think of one right now. I think stories like that can be fun once in a while. It takes a certain amount of wit and whimsy to pull them off, though, and those aren’t my strong points.

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  9. Great post, Craig! I don’t know if I’d ever write a story like this. I love great character arcs. I have read/watched a few of your examples and have enjoyed them; they just don’t rank at the top of my must reads/watch. 🙂

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  10. This is so interesting, Craig. I’d never heard of picaresque. All these years, I thought the Vacation movie was about nothing. 🙂 I loved your examples. I can’t see myself ever writing such a story. For me, the hero’s journey is about personal growth, not just getting from point a to b.


  11. As ever, you’ve given some wonderful examples and made the learning fun! I haven’t written this way yet, but I do agree that, sometimes, characters can be developed and well-rounded from the get-go. In that case, the story is all about plot, which can be lots of fun. I’ve seen the word ‘picaresque’ before but never delved into it’s meaning that deeply, and then I forgot the little I did know, lols. I love the way you’ve brought it to life here. Thanks, Craig 🙂

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  13. Makes me think of the lovable scamp concept. Also the old serial adventures like Tarzan and Conan. They didn’t change much since they started developed. There also wasn’t a real order to the stories, which means a reader can start from anywhere. To do that, you need a fully developed hero or people get confused as to why they’re different in every story.

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  14. Fascinating, Craig. I’d never heard of picaresque until your post, though I often think of Mad Max and its relevance today. You’ve offered some great illustrative examples, and all things considered, I don’t think I’ve written anything that could qualify as picaresque. 😊

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  15. Actually, I think my first novel was a little picaresque, in that the main character, Kate Devereau, hardly changed at all. This was panned a few times, but I admired her for sticking to her stubborn, if misplaced guns!

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  16. I loved all your examples. I thought of Jack Sparrow, but that might be because I have your pirates on my mind.

    I’ve never written such a story. Like you, I usually go for character development. But it’s an interesting concept to think about. I do like the examples you cited.

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