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Why Characters Matter

Why Characters Matter

A Session with Lou Aronica

I have a thesis about fiction readers that drives all of my thinking about the book business: fiction readers take fiction very seriously. There might have been a time when people read novels casually as part of their entertainment mix, but I think that happens very rarely now. Yes, your best friend might read one book a year when she goes on vacation – and that book will likely be the biggest bestseller of the moment – but she’s an addendum to the audience. She’s something like the head on a beer: she’s part of the composition of the beer, but not really part of the substance of it. I’m not saying that she doesn’t matter – every sale is important in this industry – but I’m saying that she isn’t a defining factor. This is especially true from the perspective of the fiction writer. There isn’t much to be gained from trying to please your neighbor (at least in the context of your writing; it’s always a good idea to keep your lawn mowed). If you’re planning on a career in writing, it’s the serious fiction reader that you need to make happy.

The most important thing to keep in mind about readers who are serious about fiction is that the books genuinely matter to them. Books are a fundamental part of their lives. They’ll read every chance they get: as soon as they get the kids to bed, standing in line at the bank, while everyone else is hiking up a nature trail. If they’re on a tight budget, they’ll find ways to bring as many new books into their lives as possible. They do this because, for them, reading is a singular experience. This experience isn’t something that can be replicated through television, video games, Twitter, or YouTube. Dedicated readers read fiction because they want to be transported into the story. They want to feel the emotions being conveyed in the story and live the consequences being faced.

They want to see the world through the eyes of a novel’s characters.

I’ve been involved with fiction publishing for three-and-a-half decades. What has become very clear to me in that time is that fiction readers care about characters more than anything else. Yes, plot is important. So is setting and pacing and factual accuracy. However, none of these things matter anywhere near as much as characters. If your short story or novel is populated with three-dimensional, relatable characters, you can thrill readers even if the story is set in a closet, gets all manner of detail about that closet wrong, and nothing terribly much happens. If readers can connect with the characters, they will form a bond with the story that will keep them committed until the end.

As a fiction writer, then, your job is to do everything you can to make the lives of your characters real and meaningful to readers. There are three things you need to do to make this happen: you need to make your characters relatable, you need to make them at least somewhat mysterious, and you need to make them engage emotionally with the reader.

RELATABILITY

Blue by Lou AronicaFor readers to be able to connect with characters, they need to be able to relate to them in some way. This is different from sympathizing. It’s entirely possible for readers to be fascinated with characters for which they have little sympathy. You might have no sympathy at all for the guy who abuses his family, antagonizes his coworkers, and kicks the dog, but if you can find any bit of yourself in him, you’re likely to relate to him in some way. The key to relatability is giving your character at least some characteristics that align with our general social conventions. This is true even if your characters come from a social setting very different from ours. It’s even true if your characters aren’t human. Think about the non-human characters from your favorite science fiction or fantasy novels – Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, for instance, or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Their worlds are very different from ours, and HAL is a computer. However, we still connect with these characters because they have discernible components of ourselves. Frodo yearns for the home he left behind, for example. HAL engages in intellectual debate with his fellow travelers. We can relate to these characters even though their lives are so foreign to ours because they share traits or experiences that we can understand from personal experience.

I faced a situation somewhat like this in writing my novel Blue. A portion of the novel is set in a world inadvertently created by two of the main characters while telling bedtime stories. In this fantasy world, I needed to create a number of alien characters, but I wanted them to be relatable to readers because I wanted readers to care deeply about this world. Here’s a moment between Becky, one of the main characters, and a “chestatee:”

Becky sat on the ground to pet the chestatee and it climbed into her lap, making a deep rumbling sound. For the first time, Chris noted the particular music of this island, bass-heavy and monotone. Because it was closest, he heard this particular chestatee distinctly, but he was certain others of its kind were contributing to the island’s aural backdrop.

The animal climbed Becky’s chest and licked at her chin. Becky laughed in surprise and tipped over backward. She snuggled the chestatee close to her and then playfully pawed at it, causing the chestatee to wave a paw at her as well.

This little exchange, the only one in which the chestatee appears, creates quick relatability. Readers can relate to the chestatee even though it is alien because it exhibits traits like playfulness and affection. This creature appears in exactly two pages of the entire novel and yet I’ve gotten comments from readers about it.

Typically, though, generating relatability is much more about putting human characters in human situations. One of the main characters in Blue is Chris, a man in his early forties who has not been able to get his life together after divorce drove a wedge in his relationship with his daughter Becky. Chris starts the novel in a very bad place and I wanted readers to feel this. At the same time, though, I wanted them to relate to what he was going through:

The soft whir of the DVD player was the only sound in the room. Chris sat on the sofa opposite the television, the remote control in his hand, though he didn’t intend to use it. He would just let the machine continue fast-forwarding.

On the screen, the video record of his daughter Becky’s life spun by. The smile he believed to be her first. Her masterpiece, Still Life with Smeared Pureed Pears and Cheerios on Tray Table. Her toddler form calming temporarily for a brief nap on his chest. The two of them running through the sprinkler. The perfectly orchestrated wedding service for her teddy bear and toy dog where Chris served as both best man and maid of honor. Her kerchiefed head at her sixth birthday party. Modeling her new coif when her hair returned once the treatments were over. His ex-wife Polly looking gaunt and tired—or simply angry about something—as she walked out of the auditorium with Becky after the second grade play. Back dives into the swimming pool at the resort in the Berkshires. Becky rolling her eyes at the camera during the school picnic. The forced laughter at the family reunion. The footage she took of him sleeping in the Adirondack chair on what would turn out to be his last full weekend at the house. Becky and Lonnie walking toward Becky’s room in this apartment before they closed the door on him.

Hours and hours of motion sped by at a greatly accelerated pace. Like a time-lapse image of Chris’s growing irrelevance in Becky’s life.

Chris had watched the old tapes often over the past four years. The first time he heard Becky’s preschool voice on the videos, he wept instantly. He missed that voice desperately, more than he’d even realized. He missed the way she spoke to him, how the sound of her saying the word “Daddy” defined everything that was right with the world. How she gave him every reason to believe that all promises could be fulfilled, all odds overcome. Becky’s voice had been dismissive tonight when he called the house. She had plans with her friends and she was running late. He was no competition for her eyeliner, let alone the schoolmates who would soon be waiting.

Not everyone has been in the situation Chris finds himself in, but it’s essential to the novel that readers be able to relate to him, because he’s one of the three characters who drives the story. In this very first scene, I wanted to give readers multiple ways to relate: memories of precious times, pain over separation, the feeling of being shunted aside. These are things that nearly all of us can reference from our own lives. That’s the key to relatability. If you can provide ways for readers to draw connections between a character’s experience and their own, they will likely relate to that character.

Exercise 1: “You Should Meet This Guy”

Take a look at one of your three main characters (it’s important that you do this with all of your major characters, but especially important that you do it with the most major characters). Now imagine telling a friend about this character as though it was an acquaintance your friend has never met. What are the first things you would say about the character unrelated to physical traits or the character’s situation? If you can do this easily (“His whole face lights up when he talks about his toddler son.” “I think she loves her garden more than she loves her husband.”), then you probably already have a relatable character. If you can only think of situations (“She’s having a lot of money troubles right now.” “He thinks the Mob might have finally caught up to him.”), then you haven’t found the way your character connects with the world, and therefore the reader. In that case, keep digging until you discover something to tell your friend – then make sure that you reflect this in your story.

MYSTERIOUSNESS

As much as it is important to give readers ways in which they can relate to your characters, it is also important that your characters have some sense of mystery to them. I’m not necessarily talking about dark secrets. What I mean here is that your characters (at least your main characters) should be something of a puzzle to solve. Readers shouldn’t know everything about them right at the start, though it’s important for you as the writer to know as much about your characters as you possibly can. Your characters should be complex enough that readers continue to discover more about them as they get deeper into the story.

In Blue, for example, Chris is a well-educated, accomplished man who holds onto a job that gives him no joy for reasons that remain unclear to the reader for a long time. He’s been kicked upstairs and now spends most of his time managing people and dealing with budgets. We learn that he’s had opportunities to leave for more fulfilling positions, but he hasn’t taken them. However, it isn’t until the end of the novel that we begin to understand why.

Another of the key characters in Blue is Polly, Chris’s ex-wife. Readers see several scenes of Polly and Becky together, and it is clear that she loves Becky deeply and admires nearly everything about her. However, Polly has never had any patience for Tamarisk, the fantasy world Becky and Chris created together, even though this obviously has meant a great deal to Becky at various times in her life. When, after several years, Becky mentions Tamarisk to Polly, she goes ballistic on Chris:

The phone rang. He turned off the faucet and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“You really must be kidding me.”

Polly’s “brusque” voice was unmistakable. It was the one he most closely associated with her. “What am I kidding you about?”

“You have your daughter—your fourteen-year-old pubescent daughter—talking about that fairy-tale world again?”

Becky had told Polly about Tamarisk? What was she thinking?
“What part of that do you have a problem with?”

“What part of that do I have a problem with? Let’s see, maybe it’s the part about you not realizing your baby has grown up. Or maybe it’s the part about your being so desperate to get any of your daughter’s affection that you would exploit her sentiments. Or maybe it’s that you have her so caught up in this that she actually thinks she’s having conversations with elves and fairies.”

“Is that really what bothers you, Polly?”

“You don’t think that should bother me?”

Chris hesitated a second. He needed to slow the conversation down, to gain some traction. “I don’t think that’s the issue.”

“Really. What do you think the issue is?”

“I think the issue is last night.”

Polly’s voice rose again. “You bet your ass the issue is last night. I spoke to Becky a little while ago and she told me that she’s traveling to Tamarisk from your apartment. You don’t think that I should find this a tiny bit upsetting?”

There was no hesitation this time. “I think what’s bothering you is that she was here at all last night. After four years—four years in which you never did anything to clarify for our daughter that it was you who broke up our marriage—she has finally made a small step back in my direction, and that kills you.”

There was a bitter laugh on the other end of the phone. “You really do think everything is about that, don’t you? You really think that everything is about how jealous I was of the two of you and how I deliberately removed you from her life. Grow up, Chris.”

As the novel continues, Polly’s animosity toward Tamarisk grows, even when a softer stance would greatly benefit her daughter. The “why” of this continues to be a mystery until close to the end. This adds nuance to Polly’s character. We know she and Chris have major problems, but we also know that she would do nearly anything for her daughter. Why she remains resistant to Tamarisk piques our curiosity about her and gives her character dimension.

Exercise 2: Channeling Lehane

Years ago, an agent friend read an early draft of one of my novels and said, “the last third is like a James Patterson novel.” I found this comment curious, because the outline was for a character-driven novel that was light on physical action. Then I realized that what he was saying was that I’d done a good job of creating a sense of mystery around my characters and when their mysteries start to reveal themselves the pace quickens for readers. That got me thinking that every major character’s story should have a “plot” that reveals itself the way a thriller writer might reveal dramatic components of a story.

In this exercise, imagine yourself as Michael Connelly or Dennis Lehane and your character’s personal stories as their plot devices. What’s the big reveal in your character’s personal story? How do you slowly feed that out to the reader? Is there a twist somewhere along the way?


EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT

The most important thing you can do with your characters is have readers engage with them emotionally. This goes back to the point I made at the beginning: fiction readers take fiction very seriously. If they connect with your characters at an emotional level, then your characters’s stakes become their stakes. Think about this from the perspective of your own life. If you see someone crying on a park bench, you might think, “That person’s having a rough day,” and move on. If you see a good friend crying on a park bench, you’re likely to sit next to that person to find out if you can help in any way. You might feel some simple empathy for the first person, but you feel genuine concern for the second. That’s the difference that comes from creating emotional engagement between readers and your characters.

To me, the easiest way to create emotional engagement is to show that things matter to your characters. We care about people who care about things. Of course, what they care about matters as well. If all we know about a character is that she cares about Louboutins and Maybachs, that’s much less likely to create emotional engagement (though it will at some level) than if she cares about fulfilling a long-cherished dream or breaking through with an estranged loved one. One of the neatest tricks I’ve ever seen pulled off was the one Thomas Harris accomplished with Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal is a mass murderer who eats his victims, yet Harris also showed him to be someone with genuine passions (other than killing people and eating them) and we couldn’t help care for him at least a little. If you show your characters engaged in pursuits that matter to them deeply, readers will wind up forming some sort of bond.

I didn’t have nearly as much of a challenge in Blue as Harris did in The Silence of the Lambs. However, I did have a little bit of one with Chris. He’s stuck in neutral; absolutely nothing is going right in his life. It would be very easy for readers to write him off as a hopeless cause and walk past him as he’s crying on the park bench. Therefore, early in the novel, I needed to show that his passions were still alive. In this little scene in one of the first chapters, I hint that Chris hasn’t gone completely numb:

“Do you have anything new on the iPod?”

“The new Urgent album.”

Becky turned to face him, though Chris couldn’t make out her expression while keeping his eye on the road. “You like them?”

“You turned me on to them.”

“I did?”

“You don’t remember? About six months ago, you and Lonnie played songs from their last album in the car all day.”

Becky nodded. “Huh . . . yeah. Anything good on this one?”

“Yeah, there’s some really good stuff. You haven’t heard it?”

“Nobody really talks about them anymore. I didn’t even know there was a new album.”

“Put it on.”

Becky waved a hand. “Maybe on the way home. What else do you have?”

Chris pointed to the car’s stereo system, which controlled his iPod.

“Whatever you want. I just did a big download, so there’s a bunch of new stuff.”

Becky scrolled through Chris’s “recently added” playlist. “Arcade Fire, I’m impressed. Death Cab for Cutie, good. Who’s Tim Buckley?”

“Singer-songwriter from the seventies. He had a son he barely knew who went on to be the Next Big Thing in the nineties. Both of them died mysteriously and very young.”

“How weird. Worth listening to?”

“Some of it is very good. Give it a try.”

“I’m kind of in the mood for something a little harder. Wow, you have some new stuff from Crease?” Becky started the player. The car instantly filled with distorted guitars, thudding bass, and more anguish than any twenty-one-year-old singer should feel. Chris had connected with this band the first time he heard them and he found their new music especially stirring. Conversation was now impossible, but at least Becky approved of his taste in music—most of it, anyway.

This little exchange shows Chris caring about two things: music and making some kind of connection to his daughter. This gives readers a hint that he hasn’t stopped trying in his life, something that will gain in meaning as the story continues. This, combined with several other scenes early in the novel – including the scene you saw earlier where he was watching Becky on his television – allow readers to engage with him emotionally. Because of this, by the time the action really kicks in in Blue, readers have a stake in the outcome.

Exercise 3: One Little Thing

This exercise is very simple, but could go a very long way toward creating emotional engagement. Create one little thing that your character cares about. Specifically make this a little thing: waking up to a really good cup of coffee as opposed to making sure her sister gets through rehab okay. The big things are important, but the little things go a long way toward making readers care about characters. It becomes something of an inside joke between the reader and the character. If you establish this early and then, somewhere in the middle of your story the character sleeps through the alarm and needs to rush out of the house, readers will think, “Oh, she didn’t get to have her coffee – this is going to be an awful day for her.” They’re engaged.

Keep these three traits – relatability, mysteriousness, and emotional engagement – in mind as you bring your characters to life. Your readers are going to be expecting this from you, and if you deliver for them, they will pay you back in the best possible ways: by caring about your work, by feeling as though they have a stake in the outcome, and by appreciating that you acknowledge that they take fiction very seriously. That appreciation will pay dividends for you as your career continues.

About the Author…
Lou Aronica is the New York Times bestselling author of The Element and Finding Your Element (both with Ken Robinson) and the author of the USA Today bestselling novel The Forever Year along with other works of fiction. Lou is also Publisher of The Story Plant and Authors First.

LouAronica.com

 
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