Wednesday, March 04, 2020

A character worth caring about

Rick's post about the universal appeal of stories got me thinking – what makes a good story? One clue could be found in Tom's excellent post of last week and in the words of one person in the comments section:  emotion is "the beating heart of writing".

It's a timely reminder to all writers that no matter how beautiful our words or how thrilling our tale, readers are unlikely to keep reading if they are not emotionally invested. Stories are about characters, even if that character is a dog or horse. Not cardboard cut-out characters, not two-dimensional superheroes, not people who are defined only by an unusual talent or quirk, but characters with all the hopes and dreams and struggles and flaws that people can relate to.

Everyone can relate to this!
Somerset Maugham is credited with the famous saying; "There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are." I usually begin my writing workshops by giving this quote, because I believe everyone writes a novel differently and has to discover what works for them. There are far too many "how to" books out there which claim to lay out the secret steps to a perfect novel, and in my opinion, that way lies formulaic, derivative writing that fails to allow your truly creative self to blossom.

That's not to say there are no skills and tools of the craft to be mastered; a writer should be constantly learning and improving, not only from books and workshops but also by reading great novels. And over time, they will discover the rules that work for them and guide them in the creation of their best work.   In that spirit, having started my workshop with Somerset Maugham's quote, I then tell attendees that for me, there are four key elements to a good story. I am talking about crime novels, but I think the same applies to other genres. These elements are linked together, but over the next four blogs, I am going to try to tease them apart to discuss each in turn.

In keeping with Tom's post, the first element is a character worth caring about. There can be more than one character worth caring about, of course, but at the very least there should be one. It can be the protagonist, the victim, or even the "villain". Worth caring about is not synonymous with likeable. It represents a deeper level of identification and engagement. Something about the character should touch you in a way that makes you care about what happens to them and makes you want to spend three hundred pages with them to find out how they end up. If you have ever watched a TV show or read a book that has no character you cared about, you probably didn't finish the book or watch the next episode.

I've wrestled with how to define what makes a character worth caring about. Although positive traits are part of it – few readers want to spend time with a despicable character– I think caring comes not from being likeable, charming, funny, or brave, but from layers, flaws, conflicting desires, and a personal issue they are struggling with. Readers care about different things and identify with different struggles, but generally the more your character wrestles with a universal challenge like love, loss, loneliness, fear, or anger, the more likely the reader will identify and care about them.

The word worth is an essential part of my phrase. Is the character worthy of the reader's investment? Characters who are shallow, frivolous, silly, boring, or facing a superficial challenge are usually not worth our time (nor do they pique our interest), unless the frivolity is in itself a challenge they recognize and wrestle with as they seek a deeper meaning or commitment. But often when writers try to give their characters a meaningful challenge, they fall into cliches or superficiality themselves. The burnt-out cop, the loser in search of redemption, and the brave young widow(er) in search of a new start have all been done to death, so the writer has to work hard to make that character and their situation unique. Similarly giving a character a quirk like second sight, illness, autism, OCD, or disability is no substitute for making that character real, unique, and full rounded.

These are some of my thoughts about what makes a character intriguing enough to draw us in. It doesn't have to be complex or heavy-handed. I'm sure my dogs in the simple photo have already tugged at a few heartstrings and everyone wants to know what happens to them.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara--As far as TV scripts go, I'm really weary of actors who are struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, and other dreary problems. These complications are overdone. I'm also turned off by "strong" women who can overcome every difficulty.