What is the one thing you look for in a good book – a solid ending? plot twists? maybe a style of writing? I’ll be willing to bet that’s what you might say, but your inner workings really like the characters.
There are only so many kinds of stories, especially if you are drawn to a particular genre. Romance has: protagonist meets someone special, loses them, re-finds them, the end. There are a lot of variations on the theme, but it’s still the same basic storyline. Thriller: either everyone wants to kill you, or you have an undying need for revenge. Said and done.
You get the idea.
During my most basic acting class in college, the professor stressed to us that it did no good to act at anything. What had to be done was react, and done in such a way as to be believable. He didn’t want to see us on stage acting like we were petrified with fear. What he wanted was to see us react out of fear. Or hate, love, hunger, or whatever the need at the time might be.
Plot, setting, realism, etc. all have their places in a well-crafted story. They are all needed, but if one or more is weak, the story may survive. If the characters are flat and lifeless then …
So let me look at characters. The many books I’ve read on the subject always seem to have an aside comment on how to make a character unique. Something along the line of picking a trait that was not usually associated with that particular type of character. An example would be a tough guy that always likes to smell flowers. For the longest time, I thought they were saying make your characters stand out.
Now, after becoming more ingrained in the writer’s culture and indeed talking to several of them, I’ve come to believe there is definitely more. The idea is unique characters, and in that respect, the authors of the advice had it slightly skewed. I think they may have been trying to say – characters need to be offbeat. Syncopated from what the reader expects. It is that unpredictable, quirky difference that people care about, and that deviation from the norm holds true no matter the genre, even classic fiction.
Anyone can smell flowers, but it takes a real son-of-a-bitch to kill someone because that person walked on the killer’s favorite flower.
Anyone can swear. However, I once knew a first sergeant who dressed down his unit for over twenty minutes and never once used a swear word, or even alluded to a situation in which those words could have been used, not even a synonym. The ending result? The unit felt horrible after the chewing. But it was a masterpiece of art, completely different from the expected. I stood agog at the verbal spectacle, especially since the NCO was an undying master at cursing.
Conclusion? The soldier was brilliant. He was quite a character and behaved out of the ordinary, even for him. Now tell me a reader wouldn’t be motivated to pick up another book by an author that used that character.
I think readers want the unusual suspect. If readers can guess what is about to happen, it doesn’t work well, with the exception of letting them imagine they have guessed what will happen, and then yanking the rug. I believe they want that added twist of literary kismet; it’s expected, the one they cannot conjure, or in a more sophisticated way, something they can call up and summon, but desperately don’t want to live through, no matter how vicariously they experience it. Characterization is a way to produce that atmosphere, because Mary, or John, can react in strange directions, in unexpected yet ingenious ways, or they can die too soon.
Readers grow attached to characters. They love them, but a plot twist is simply a change in circumstances. They may like, even appreciate the author’s ricochet of direction, but it enthralls them to see how the king or queen roll with the changing reality. Suspense may paralyze us, but only because of the character’s involvement.
The highest classification of humor is a plot device, the lowest is the farce. Regardless of all that; humor in the situation may make you grin, but the guffaw happens when Tommy gets hit in the balls, or bitchy Sally lands on her ass after trying to kick the dog and misses. Tears of tragedy dripped not because the two star-crossed lovers took their life. That is explained in the very beginning. They soaked cheeks because desperate Juliet tried to drink any remaining poison and then, between sobs, kissed Romeo for any scraps that remained and still failed to find enough.
The lifeblood of fiction comes from the characters, literally (pun intended).
I have two friends that know what they are doing with characters:
Leah Erickson with her award-winning, The Brambles https://amzn.to/2HSSV35/
Lisa Towles with her book, Choke http://www.independentpressaward.com/2018distinguishedfavorite/
Please check them out. You will enjoy them, and While you are at it: if you haven’t read The Sigma Factor please do!
The last thing is every author needs feedback, so don’t forget to review everything you read. That includes my blog, my book, Leah and Lisa’s books. Everything.