Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Going Along for the Ride: Characters That Count

Have you ever had an idea for a great plot and excitedly set to work on it only to abandon it days or weeks later when you just couldn't make it work?  I've experienced this far too often and would dare to wager most authors have.  After pondering the problem, I've come to realize it usually boils down to one factor.  In almost every case, my failed stories didn't work because -- no matter how good the plot idea was -- the protagonist didn't inspire me to go along for the ride.

Although plot is important, I think more readers are willing to put up with a few "plot holes" than with a character they can't connect to.  Plot is the vehicle, conflict is the engine, and a likeable character is the "human" element that draws you in.  Characters make an adventure real.  They make you care about how the story will end.  The following are a few of the things I've noticed about intriguing characters who convince me to go along for the ride:

A Mysterious Past

Many compelling characters have a hidden story lurking in their background.  You might sense it guiding their actions or their eventual "fate," but the author gives only a few tantalizing bits and pieces along the way.  Often this leads to startling revelations as the story builds to its climax.  A good example of this is the character Eona from Alison Goodman's companion novels Eon and Eona.  An early hint about Eona's past comes from the set of plaques she carries that bear her ancestors' names.  In gradual stages, we discover that one of these ancestors -- Kinra -- was a Mirror Dragoneye just like Eona.  We also begin to see disturbing similarities between Eona and Kinra that could lead Eona to an equally disastrous end.


When a character seems human -- cursed with flaws and not just blessed with strengths -- it's sometimes possible to see a little of yourself in her as you struggle with her through her challenges.  Perhaps a long-held belief will be challenged, moving you out of your comfort zone and compelling you to look at things in a different way.  Even when you disagree with a character, if you understand her motives, you can share in her pain and joy.  This is what makes good literature valuable.  It's an unsettling or reaffirming mirror to the world and your inner self.


How a character relates to his environment is as much a part of his characterization as what he looks like, thinks like, or acts like.  The right character in the right setting can make all the difference between a story that works and one that doesn't.  Some plots I initially abandoned as unworkable gained new life when the right character stepped forward to inhabit the setting.  Maybe your protagonist isn't suited for your Regency romance but is a perfect match for your dystopian world.  Don't give up on unused protagonists.  More than one author has revived a discarded character when the opportune moment arrived.


Most characters who inspire me to follow their journey are admirable in some way.  Sometimes it's because they possess an inner strength I wish I had.  Other times it's because they hold fast to an important core value.  Harry Potter appeals to so many readers, despite his imperfections, because he doggedly tries to do what's right no matter how greatly the odds are stacked against him.  That's the type of character I want to root for.  That's the type of character I want to follow through a seven novel series.

Next time:  More characterization advice from guest blogger Lynne H.