I always look forward to opening a book and discovering the characters living inside. I enjoy meeting them, sizing them up, catching on to how they think and react to situations. Heck, I even like to find out how they smell and what they like to eat.
Some novels start off like gangbusters with the character in the middle of a crash and burn situation, others more slowly and deliberate forcing me to be patient. In both cases, I have to keep reading to get a handle on who they are and why I should care about them. If they seem like jerks, what are their redeeming qualities? If they’re bigger than life and confident, what is their fatal flaw? How long am I going to be able to put up with that humongous chip on their shoulder, without knowing why it’s there?
A character might seem like a smart aleck right off, but may turn out to be insecure and deeply hurt as the author unpacks the story. Or the frightened-by-their-own-shadow character, may wind up saving the day. But if they lie, cheat and connive, the back cover book blurb better warn me they’ll have a huge character arc. Then, I’ll love to see how it all plays out…as long as the author keeps it interesting.
I’m not looking for perfection.
The key phrase above all else is – why do I care? Do I want to spend 200-400 pages with this overly neurotic individual, or this too-cool-for-school dude? How long before I say, “Oh, come on, get over it already!” to the hurt-by-the-past character, afraid to move on? Does what they do make sense to me, or are they doing it only because the plot demands it. Are the characters realistic? Would I want to know them? I understand the author can’t do all of this in the first chapter without a huge info dump, so I give a book fifty pages, sometimes one-hundred, to take off and fly.
What is it that makes me care?
It all goes back to the story basics: goal, motivation, conflict. Is what they have to accomplish in this book realistically motivated, and are the roadblocks on getting there believable. I like to add one character trait to my list of “musts” – decent. Deep down, are they honest and likeable individuals? When tested by the plot, does their integrity hold up?
Give me someone to like and root for, not someone I’d rather avoid like the current strain of winter flu. As I already said, I’m not asking for perfection. Even if the protagonist is a con artist, as long as he has some code of honor in place, I’ll stick with him.
How much plot do I need?
I don’t believe in love at first sight. Just because “she” thinks “he” is hot, I’m still going to need many more layers of plot to hold my interest. On the other extreme, I don’t buy the character who hates someone right off with no good reason, and spends the first half of the book bickering with him until she falls in love. Give me some meat on them bones, and I’ll stick around to read. (sorry for the mixed metaphor) If they’re already skipping through the tulips by page ten, I’m gone. Mix it up. Keep it interesting. Throw me a twist I didn’t see coming, and I’ll keep coming back for more.
It all boils down to GMC
Yup, I’ll buy almost any situation if the author has set it up properly. I’ll even go along with crazy situations and borderline unbelievable setups, if the author drops a hint of a promise; stick with me on this, I’ll work things out. Or, if they give me one solid, likeable character trait to hang on to before the dust settles. Then I’m willing to wade through the chaos in order to get to that necessary kernel of motivation to take me to the end of the book.
How about you?
What do you like to see right off about characters in books or movies? What makes you put the book down and not pick it back up?
I’ve got a hard back large print copy of The Heart Doctor and the Baby to give to one commenter, and I’ll leave this post up for a week (until February 1st) before I draw the name.
Thanks for reading!
Next topic – Non-heroic Hero Names