Late last night I finished the last of my Thriller Best First Novel entries. Reading three books in one day wasn’t fun, especially since I’m in the middle of revisions that are due now. Well, it wasn’t exactly three full books, because I had started each of them long ago, but these were the three that I really had a hard time with and thus kept putting aside because I just didn’t want to finish them.
But I’m sure other people loved them. I know at least one person did–the editor who bought the book. I’m rarely critical of books because I know that my tastes are not everyone else’s tastes, just like I know that some people love my books–and some people don’t.
Editors buy books they love. They have to love them–they’re going to be reading, and re-reading, that book many times. They’ll be fighting for that book in editorial and marketing and sales and art meetings.
For me to love a book, and give it a high score, there has to be three things present.
3) An interesting story. Whether a romance or a mystery or a thriller, or a blend of all three, I need to be interested in the story itself. This is what I’m really looking for when I read cover copy–the basic plot. Most books I put back on the shelf because the plot doesn’t sound interesting to me.
2) Voice. Voice is an interesting story told well. It’s what makes the multitude of similar plot lines fresh and unique. Voice is the rhythm an author “speaks” on the page. There’s some voices that hit us and we cringe; others that are like music. Voice is what has me falling in love with an author.
1) Characters. I have to care about SOMEBODY. I have to want the hero to live and not strangle him because he’s an idiot or toss the book because he’s a jerk. The plot is important–what are the stakes, why are they important, what will happen if the bad guy wins? But I need at least one character I can believe in. He can be flawed. He can be imperfect. But he has to be more good than bad, and his bad can’t be evil. Maybe I’m too simple in my tastes, but I want a good guy.
There’s also the matter of getting into the character’s heads. Some authors are incredible this way–I feel like I’m in the POV character’s shoes. There’s a depth of character, inner conflict, personal strife, that I can feel as the story unfolds. If I’m there with the characters, and care that they survive, and the author’s voice is music to my ears, and the story is interesting–I’ll always score the book high, even if the writing itself isn’t brilliant or there’s a plot problem or two. Why? Because if my personal criteria is met, I can read without sensing the passage of time. And if I can lose myself in a book, it’s like living a completely new life for a few hours. It’s quite a heady experience.
The television show HEROES had me greatly worried for awhile. It still has me a little worried. There is one Good Guy and lots of nearly good guys and lots of nearly bad guys and a Very Bad Guy. Peter Petrelli is the Good Guy. (We won’t go into Claire because she often annoys me and sometimes does TSTL things, but because she regenerates she always lives.) I need Peter to stay the Good Guy. He can do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and he can make mistakes, but his goals must remain noble. For a few episodes, I feared that Peter was being sent down the wrong, dark path. Which would have been completely against his character and tick me off. Fortunately, he ended up making the right choices.
Some of the characters I met in my contest reading were cardboard cut-outs. The book may have been a thriller–and usually met my “interesting story” criteria–but I didn’t care about the characters in the the story, and thus didn’t care what happened to them or the world.
Before I was published, I never put a book down unfinished. Even if it was awful, I’d finish it (albeit I might skimread it!) But now I have far too many unread books, and I don’t have time to waste on a so-so book, or a book that just doesn’t do it for me.
But I made the commitment, so I had to finish these books.
I discovered that they all had one fatal flaw, for me at any rate. I didn’t care about anyone in the story. I didn’t care about the hero, the villain, the victims (if there were victims) or even the stakes. The books were well-paced and technically well-written, but, as Rhett Butler would say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Without the depth of character, I felt like I was observing a black-and-white B-movie with no subtext. There was no color, no emotion.
I thought I was done with contests, but my RITA books are on their way. Fortunately, I only have to read seven books (two of which I’ve already read) and I have two months, as opposed to thirty books in three months. Much, much easier!
I’m presenting a class on Rule Breaking this month. It’s one of my favorite subjects 🙂 . . . one of the things I talk about is passion in writing. That you have to love what you’re writing. You have to love your characters–even the bad guys. You also have to challenge your characters, hurt them, make them suffer. In unpublished contests I’ve found that too many authors pull their punches. Well? What’s interesting about characters who are just like everyone else?
I’ve been reading Donald Maass’ FIRE IN FICTION. I like Maass’ books because they’re straightforward and “talk” to me in ways that other writing books don’t. He wrote some things that struck me as I was in the middle of writing ORIGINAL SIN last year:
“Is your protagonist an ordinary person? Find in him any kind of strength. . . . Without a quality of strength on display, your readers will not bond with your protagonist. Why should they? . . . So what is strength? It can be as simple as caring about someone, self-awareness, a longing for change, or hope. Any small positive quality will signal to your readers that your ordinary protagonist is worth their time.”
A protagonist is different than a hero, to which Maass says:
“Is your protagonist a hero–that is, someone who is already strong? Find in him something conflicted, fallible, humbling or human. . . . Be sure to soften the flaw with self-awareness or self-deprecating humor . . . What is a flaw that will not prove fatal? A personal problem, a bad habit, a hot button, a blind spot, or anything that makes your hero a real human being will work.”
And perhaps the most valuable point:
“The effect of one character upon another is as particular as the characters themselves.”
These last two points is where I found the most problems in the recent books I read. Heroic characters whose flaws weren’t integral to the story, they were forced or worse, there were no flaws–or the flaw was seen as something positive by the character, i.e. they had no sense of how their actions affected those around them. The characters often seemed to act and think in a bubble–as if everyone was a catalyst, and no one changed by the end of the book.
There was one book I read that I scored very high that wasn’t the best written book in the pile. But from page one I was sucked in because I cared about what happened to the characters. They grew over the course of the book and I could absolutely feel the impact they had on each other, not just the main characters but the other characters they met on the way.
“No man is an island.” We all affect the people we meet. Characters should, too.
What are some of the more powerful characters you’ve seen recently in fiction or film and why?