Yesterday Mindy talked about how long she gives a book before she gives up on the reading and moves to the next book in the To Be Read stack. She asked us what mattered most to us, and what a book needed to keep us reading. We all had different criteria and it was interesting to see what everyone else wanted from the books they read (believe me, I paid attention – this is good information for writers to know.) Some folks wanted an intricate, involved and gripping plot, and others wanted a rich and compelling voice. For me, it’s the characters. I’ll give a book longer to develop its plot as long as there’s someone I like in the story. Even if it’s a secondary character, I’ll stay until the end. But if I can’t develop a fondness for even one, I’m gone.
Last week, I closed another book after 50 pages, disappointed once again. It was a first novel, one that had been getting great reviews, but I just couldn’t immerse myself. The characters, an adventuring group travelling on a ship, seemed to hate each other. They sniped and argued, they refused to cooperate and had to be forced to work together under threat of death. The leader (at least I assume he was the leader – he seemed to get more screen time than anyone else) was tired and ineffectual, and the rest came off like whining children who’d been given weapons to play with. The book started with action, but I found myself wishing someone would kill the main characters and shut them up. I reached 50 pages and closed the book forever. The author’s voice was reasonably solid, and the plot was charging ahead in a lively manner, but I didn’t want to spend another second with those horrible people.
Look at it as if you’re joining a club. Say you’ve always wanted to learn basket-weaving, and lo! and behold, a club is starting in your town. You make arrangements to go to the first meeting – you clear your schedule, buy the supplies you’ll need, and show up on the designated night. An hour into the class, you’re having trouble concentrating on what the teacher is saying because the two women to your right are trading barbs at each other that would draw blood if they were real, the man to your left is talking on his cell phone and the teacher is constantly being interrupted by the teenager in front of you who can’t quite get the hang of the first step. Do you stick around? Basket-weaving is something you want to do, sure, but the people you’re doing it with are going to drive you out of your mind.
The fortunate part of writing versus real life is that when we create characters with unpleasant personalities, we can also give them traits that make a reader like them, at least a little. The skillful writer will blend the wickedness with something that keeps the reader reading. Let’s look at Tyrion Lannister, of George R R Martin’s famous “Song of Ice and Fire” saga. Tyrion is sharp-tongued and calculating, always ready to take advantage of someone else’s mistake if he can find a way to do it. But Tyrion is a dwarf, and spent his life suffering the slings and arrows of his family, as if his size were somehow a punishment to them. Should be pity Tyrion for his unusual size? Hell no. The thing that makes him worth sticking with is his sympathy for other people who’ve been outcast the way he was. When he behaves kindly, the reader is able to see the worth in him. He’s still something of a bad guy, but there’s something redeemable there. It’s that redemption I’ll stay for.
Same thing with the good guys, really. Look at Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters’ famous Benedictine monk detective. He was once a soldier, and gave up that life to become a man of peace. He protects the troubled, feeds the hungry and shows kindness to even the most obnoxious townspeople. You’d half expect angels to flock around him, singing alleluias. Luckily, he isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes, like any of us. He sometimes trusts when he shouldn’t, and when he is pushed hard enough and loses his temper, it’s a sight to see. You expect the good guys to be kind and honorable and all that, but if that’s all there is to the hero, you won’t care about him. He needs flaws. We’ve talked about flaws before, and how they serve to give a character depth in addition to driving a story forward. Flaws also give the reader a way to identify with the hero. In the same way an antagonist is more interesting if he has at least one redeeming quality, the protagonist benefits from being less than perfect. He can be afraid of water or spiders or puppets, and it’ll be the way he overcomes in spite of that fear that makes a reader want to stay until the last page.