No Man Is An Island

By Allison Brennan


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?

27 thoughts on “No Man Is An Island

  1. Catherine Shipton

    I just finished reading ‘An Iron Rose’ by Peter Temple. I found interesting the slow reveal of different aspects of what made the central character, John Faraday. It’s written in the first person. The trigger crime and his reaction to it, took up about the first quarter of the book. From this you surmised that he was a blacksmith, and what his connection to the victim was and how he interacted with other characters. As the story moved forward it was in the way he sought answers that more of not just his nature, but his past was revealed.

    Initially you get a sense of someone that seems grounded in the country, a solid man shaken by recent events. As the story unfolds you find that that solidness has been hard built. That just below the surface of an ordinary country bloke is someone that has had his beliefs in all he knows of the world rocked before. I think it is the twining of then and now, that underlies the growth of a complex powerful character with vulnerabilities, and believable trust issues.

    In that first quarter of the story I was quite happy with the story as it was being unveiled and the voice was true to my knowledge of country Australian blokes… Not the mythical bloke, the ones I actually know. As the story progressed I really became engrossed at the pacing of the character progression and the plot moved. Other characters grew throughout the book, just not with the complexity of the main character. I think taken in context of the events of this book and the first person perspective this made sense though. In regards to one other character in particular, you experienced the doubts of John, and could see why he doubted, yet the story resolution fit.

    I’m trying to not wave big spoilers over the plot…in case anyone does want to read it.

    It would have been an entertaining read if the author had kept the character a solid country bloke told in his strong voice, yet the added character layers made it a richer story.

    Sort of like how a good roast chicken tastes good, but if it’s organic free-range and you add a little butter and olive oil, and sprinkle some herbs and fresh cracked pepper, it’s an entirely different bird.

  2. Louise Ure

    Allison, although your post didn’t take this bend, I wanted to mention that judges for these reading panels are truly unsung heroes themselves.You put aside your own work, your own reading preferences, your own too-short family time to read a great number of books and help them get the attention great work deserves. It’s sometimes a thankless task, but not today. Thank you.

  3. Alafair Burke

    I’m just finishing Sue Grafton’s U is for Undertow. For me, Kinsey Millhone is the perfect example of a character who justifies the existence of every novel. Fortunately, Grafton always delivers on writing and almost always creates a plot I care about, but she could write V is for Vegetables about Kinsey learning how to master a crudite’, and I’d still read it.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – insanely impressive that you would read thirty books in three months. And with your family events and your deadlines…I want whatever pills you’re taking.
    Really, though, thank you for doing what you do.
    There are so many great books that meet the criteria. I keep going back to FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahnuik. Brilliant style and original voice. And his characters are certainly flawed, yet there’s something in them I can identify with. Another favorite is THE SEA WOLF by Jack London.

  5. Allison Brennan

    What a fantastic recommendation, Catherine! I should read that, but you’ll think for a silly reason. ORIGINAL SIN has been moved up on the schedule in Australia and I have two interviews scheduled next week with Australian press. And my sales have always been strong in Australia. I’d love to learn more about the people there and if this book is a good example, then I’m getting it. 🙂

    Thanks Louise. We all judge from time to time. I read fast, so I usually read at night after I write. A good book will keep me awake or have me thinking about it as soon as I wake up–and I’ll finish it real quick. A bad book (or a bad-to-me book) drags, puts me to sleep, and I dread having to finish it.

    Alafair, my mom is a huge Sue Grafton fan, from the very beginning. She has the first five books from the book club. I read one in the middle just so I knew what the general feeling of the books were like, and I always meant to go back and read them all, but now there are too many I don’t have the time to invest! Maybe one summer I’ll read them all in a row when the last comes out 🙂

  6. Rae

    I just read "The First Rule" by Robert Crais, and was reminded once again what a compelling, complicated character Joe Pike is. And every time I read a new Crais book, I’m impressed anew by his wonderful writing and unique voice – he’s so often imitated that I think people forget how big an impact he’s had on crime fiction.

  7. Allison Brennan

    Stephen, it was about 3-1/2 months. 🙂 I read fast. There is one problem with judging, though, and I wonder if this affects scores for all judges. When I’m judging, I’m in a different reader mode. I HAVE to read the book. If it’s a book that I WANT to read, I often curl up with a glass of wine and cheese and crackers and PLAN on a quiet reading night. I’ll also carry it around with me and read it at the kids games while they warm up, or while I’m waiting for them to get out of some such thing. When I’m judging, it’s like part of a job–a part that can be really good or really miserable, but a job. So that book had better grab me immediately with its characters or I resent having to read it. There was one book that I didn’t love the main character at the beginning but loved the story and how all the characters interacted. I didn’t feel the protagonist changed enough considering the events of the story, yet it seemed to work on all the other levels and I did like it. But usually, if I’m not invested in the character within 20 pages, I’m not invested in the book.

    My husband is a huge Jack London fan. He loves the man vs nature stories–survival, etc. London makes it so much more personal. I haven’t read THE SEA WOLF, though. I’ve only read his short stories.

  8. JD Rhoades

    My son and I have recently been watching the DVD’s of the BBC version of LIFE ON MARS. If you’re not familiar with the story: Sam Tyler, a modern day cop in Manchester, England, gets hit by a car, wakes up–and it’s 1973. He’s still a Manchester detective, but it’s his first day on the job, no one knows him yet, and he’s got to try to do the job without all the modern cop stuff like forensics, computers, etc., in an environment where the standard method of investigation is "pick up a likely suspect, haul him in and smack him around til he confesses". Sam keeps trying to figure out if this is real or if it’s a particularly vivid coma hallucination.

    Sam’s interesting, but the character that really steals the show is his boss, DCI Gene Hunt (played by Philip Glennister). Hunt (who calls himself the "Gene Genie" after the Bowie song) is a brute, barely one step removed from the criminals he’s chasing. He’s violent, profane, sarcastic, openly cynical about the job, and, as an early episode reveals, more than a little corrupt. Sam’s frequently horrified by him, and he’s contemptuous of Sam’s "modern" ideas about policing.

    But as the show goes on, you find out that Hunt really does care about the job, about his people, and the victims of the crimes he investigates. You can tell by the expression of savage joy on his face as he gleefully shouts "You’re NICKED!" at a bad guy he’s just collared. A lot of his faults come from the anger and disappointment he feels about the way things are. He’s a great character, brilliantly portrayed.

  9. JT Ellison

    I’ve just finished reading the first 5 Atticus Kodiak novesl by Greg Rucka, and as always, I’m thrilled with the character development. Talk about someone you can sink you teeth into. Atticus is one of my all-time favorites.

    I’m about to dive into two series I’ve not read yet, David Hewson’s Nic Costa books and Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books. I’ve become fascinated with how characters develop over the course of a series, and agree completely that there needs to be a reason for them to develop during the course of a book. The greatest plot int he world won’t cover for a boring, shallow, self-absorbed character.

    I’m ready to judge another contest. I did the Edgars a couple of years ago, and while there were plenty of books I didn’t enjoy, finding the diamond in the pile of coal made it all worthwhile. Plus I never felt guilty reading one of the Edgar books – though I felt terribly guilty about reading anything that wasn’t an Edgar contender. Why do we beat ourselves up like this??? : )

  10. Jane George

    Hi Allison,

    Good post. Judging contests has helped me to know how it feels to be an editor or agent and really hope that the next thing you pick up will blow your socks off.

    The most recent character that has stuck with me is Silas from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Silas is little Bod’s guardian in the graveyard. This responsibility is out of line with who and what Silas is (only hints are given as to Silas’ true nature), yet he meets his obligation admirably. I love that book.


  11. Boyd Morrison

    Allison, I’m with you on how different it is reading for a contest or awards. I was also a judge for ITW, and it gave me new appreciation for what agents and editors do every day, reading book submission after book submission. Many of the books that I judged were not something I would have chosen to read on my own, so I went into it thinking of it as work. But I also think that affected my judging appropriately. If a book didn’t grab me from the beginning and make me want to finish it, that was almost always a sign that I wasn’t going to like it. But the ones that got me right away were really good, and I think that’s a good lesson for authors. In my case, I had to give authors a chance because that was my task, but if I had been reading for pleasure, I would have given up on a lot of these books because I wasn’t invested in finding out what was going to happen, whether that was due to unsympathetic characters or uninteresting plots.

  12. Tom

    Not to be pandering to the players, here, but I finished BOULEVARD last night, written by . . . oh, what the hell’s his name . . . I just saw it somewhere . . . right, Stephen Jay Schwartz!

    Hayden Glass. Talk about flawed, memorable, and somehow still heroic? Yeah. And don’t forget Kennedy or Charlie, either.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    If a book doesn’t capture my attention and rivet me, I’ll put it down. I used to read to the end, no matter what, and maybe it’s just having now read a large quantity of fiction, or maybe it’s just lack of time, but if I can predict everything, there’s not point in using up that time when it could be spent enjoying someone else’s book.

    Having read for a couple of contests now, I have a great empathy and sympathy toward agents and editors. You can generally tell within three chapters if the book is going to be any good. You can also generally tell within the first five pages if the writer has real skill and voice. Everything is subjective, of course, so that skill and voice may not be to one reader’s tastes when it works for someone else, but you can at least tell if it’s there. And when it’s not. I don’t envy the excruciating task that agents have.

    I’m way behind on reading Crais, who is also a must buy for me, but I just finished THE WATCHMAN a few weeks ago and loved it. Of course, I already loved Pike, but I wondered how Crais was going to sustain an entire novel in the POV of a man who just does not talk much. But he did, and it was so in keeping with Pike and a revelation a the same time. Excellent job.

    Another voice that riveted me was Tana French’s THE LIKENESS. This was recommended to me by Margie Lawson (who is going to be teaching a terrific class on getting the character’s emotion on the page–a hugely popular class)… and I figured if Margie thought it was an absolute read, I’d better pick it up. She was right. French as a lot more introspection, but it’s so beautifully done, it’s like being immersed in a painting–with a killer lurking somewhere about.

    A third one I read was THE HELP. I was reluctant to read this because of the same issues we’d talked about here a while back–this was a white author writing in some of the chapters from the POV of black maids in the 60s, from their perspective about what it was like just before and during the Civil Rights movement. I was skeptical, in spite of the hype, but she had such respect for the voices, and the women, that I was entranced. I don’t know if she did them justice… I cannot know that, really, having just been a small kid during that time frame. But the voice was distinctive and enthralling, and the tension was palpable.

  14. Catherine Shipton

    Allison if An Iron Rose is hard for some reason to obtain, I’d go for ‘Truth’ his latest novel for similar reasons. I see Temple’s Faraday as pretty true to life for a man raised in the country, with cross over city experience.

    However there are so many voices in Australia. We’ve got stronger than ever multicultural mix now. We’ve got so much going on still with our indigeneous people…in my lifetime one of my friends from university was prevented from going to school till he was 10 as he was a houseboy. He’s working within the State Government in Education now and is helping shake things up in ways relevant for this century.

    If you have time…and I’m not sure how you manage to bend the time space continium as you do already, but another book that is particularly Australian is ‘ Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller. It plays out a lot of the misunderstandings of our histories in a current context.

    If we have one common thread here , I’d say it’s our love of myth. Sometimes our view of ourselves is seen through this mythical heroic scrim of utter bullshit…but we do love our myths.

    Also yay the book is out earlier…sweet. And congrats on Aussie sales continuing to boom.

  15. Catherine Shipton

    I really shouldn’t try to communicate before coffee. Faraday is a character in a stand alone novel. However the characters within ‘Truth’ have a similar emotional accuracy and growth…

    In case anyone is interested in exploring other Australian writers, the Australian Crimewriters of Australia has a site dedicated to the Ned Kelly Awards. I’m currently working my way through books I’ve missed over the years using as a guide.

  16. Gar Haywood

    Allison, why were you compelled to read all the contest submissions in their entirety? My experience in judging contests (MWA, PWA, etc.) has been that you can pretty much read the first 25 pages of any ms. and figure out a) whether or not its exemplary enough to be a short-lister; and b) what its author is doing right and what he/she is doing wrong. Reading an obvious non-contender all the way to the end has always struck me as an unnecessary form of masochism.

    But maybe that’s just me.

  17. Jessica Bacon

    One of my favorite characters is Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar. There’s something about his dry sense of humor that I love. Then there’s his friend, Win. He’s this rich and pretty much deplorable character, but because Coben’s made us (the reader) care about Bolitar, and Bolitar cares about Win, we find ourselves caring about an otherwise "unworthy" character. Or maybe the fact that Bolitar looks past Win’s faults adds to what makes him (Bolitar) a likeable guy??

  18. Jill James

    Allison, I’m reading The Breach by Patrick Lee. Didn’t know it was on the NYT list until after I started reading it. I can see why. Travis is a hero to die for and one who would die for you. From the beginning we learn he is an ex-con who was in prison for a crime he believed he belonged in prison for. But, from the beginning we learn deep inside is more than just an ex-con trying to move on with his life. He seems real in the pages and I would love to know him in person.

  19. Catherine Shipton

    Allison, I apologise for being a bit of a bloghog today.

    It’s just that as read comments after mine I looked up and saw my probably harsh comment about Australian myths, ‘our view of ourselves is seen through this mythical heroic scrim of utter bullshit’…and thought I better clarify.

    I have mixed feelings in regards to Australian myth building. Yes we do have many heroes here, past and present. There is also I think an over identification with past heroes…it’s as though we think in their reflected glory we have actually done something.(hence the scrim of bullshit comment) I think the myth building would sit more comfortably for me if more people were inspired to emulate the characteristics of our bushmen and women, our war heroes, the little Aussie battler…my disappointment comes from those that bask in the Australian myths without effort and or wave flags as they bash minorities.

    Personally I see myths as something to learn through, not as a balm to seduce us into apathy.

    Thanks Allison, for writing another topic that has obviously stirred me up.

  20. Allison Brennan

    Just got back from a volleyball tournament. Whew! Thanks for the recommendations folks. I have several to add to my list.

    Gar, the reason we read the entire book (though if it was bad, I did skim it–enough to know that it didn’t get better) is because ITW changed the contest so that one judge panel didn’t have to read 300 books (or the first 50 pages of 300 books.) The first year I judged, that was rule–just 50 pages, unless it was a contender. Then, the board felt we should read the entire book. That did not work, for obvious reasons (first book didn’t have as many entries as best novel.) So now we have panels so we read the entire book. It works much better, and I’m happy with the new system. It’s sort of a combination of what is good about all the contests out there.

  21. Allison Brennan

    Catherine, I just saw your last post–be a blog hog! I agree with your comments wholeheartedly. Societies can only grow when they look to both the good and bad in their history and emulate the heroes in their own lives. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big heroic act or small, everyday heroic acts. Thank you!

  22. Catherine Shipton

    Allison, thanks for that reasurance. I’m feeling really scatty… like every thought has spikes at the moment.I’m tending to clarify my meaning a lot lately.

    It’s probably a good thing I’m disappearing into a rainforest for a while after my last exam.

  23. Mike Dennis

    I just finished reading STREET 8, a great noir novel by Douglas Fairbairn (1977). In this dark tale, the central character, Bobby Mead, is a used car salesman who feels his hometown of Miami closing in on him as Cuban exiles take over the city. This causes a tremendous upheaval not only in Miami, but in him as a character, an upheaval that no one, least of all Mead himself, could see coming.

    If anyone’s interested, I wrote a review of STREET 8 for my blogspot, Or you can just take my word for it; it’s a terrific novel.


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