A Matter of Character
Yesterday or the day before yesterday, on my blog comments it was suggested that the way to judged if a book was any good is “Can you remember the name of the main character a few days/weeks/months/years after you read it?”
This was apparently proposed by Ursula Le Guin as a method for determining if a book is any good. (Weirdly the only character of hers I remember the name for is that for The Left Hand of Darkness, and not the voice character, and even then I only remember his “house name” Rem ir Estraven. That is forgivable though, as it has been more than 20 years since I re-read it.)
So, is she right?
To a great extent yes. My quibble would be with “main character” if the book is first person. For instance, I just finished two excellent medieval mysteries, and I remember the names of all of the characters around the main character, including his daughter’s dog, but I had to think hard to remember HIS name, because it’s only mentioned a couple of times in the book.
On the other hand, if I don’t remember the names, it’s not a very good book. Now there is a place, at least in my life, for not-very-good-books. As I’ve explained before, I was born (I think. At least my parents certainly didn’t TRY to make me this way) an insufferable blue stocking. I am not very fond of TV or movies. I could be fond of games, but after losing two years to Tetris decided my personality is too prone to addiction to risk computer games. So, mostly I read for fun.
And while it’s fine to read a great book, it’s also a bit of trouble, because you can’t just put great books down when it’s time to work, cook dinner, or spend time with the kids.
I don’t do this so much now, but when the boys were little, I often read what I call “popcorn books” and I chose them for being on that edge where they were interesting enough to continue reading, but not so interesting that I couldn’t put them down if the baby started crying or whatever.
I don’t remember most of those books, and in fact, my run of buying them and reading them like popcorn ended when I realized I’d left a book halfway and started another one halfway and didn’t realize they were separate books.
Now these were mostly mysteries. Mysteries and the more formulaic of romances (there are romances that are good books, yes, and will knock your socks off) lend themselves to this better than science fiction which is, by definition, a literature of ideas.
If you aspire to write popcorn books, there’s nothing wrong with that. Judging by the mountain of them I bought (and donated when we moved) they sell, and can keep you in food and shoes, and it’s not a dishonest trade. And believe it or not, for many people, that is exactly what they want to do. This is the sort of book they enjoy and wish to write. And that’s fine. I never saw any point in sneering at craftsmen whose tastes/goals are different from yours.
For most of us, we at least aspire to something better, at least for most of our books.
And the way to do better is through character.
I read an awful lot, both of popcorn books (not so much today) and of decent books that stay with you, and here are some tips on making your character memorable. (And keep in mind I get characters for free. They show up in my head fully realized, living and breathing, and so I don’t do any of this consciously. But I can analyze what other people do.)
1- Don’t make them stereotypes. You can start from the stereotype, but then make sure to put in something that’s not a given, or twist the stereotype and turn it upside down (Terry Pratchett’s Yoless, the female version of which might be in medschool with my son.) For instance in the medieval mystery I was reading, the shopkeeper who is the main character has a complicated interior life, as he abandoned the chance to be a scholar in order to get married, and then lost his wife to the Black Death. He’s just SLOWLY coming back from the grief. (Oxford Medieval Mysteries, though title and author escape me.) His love for his children who ARE rather stereotypical children characters makes them important to the reader, and neither he nor his sister who keeps house for him are QUITE standard.
2- Don’t make them unavoidable losers. Yes, yes, I know, the world you designed is supposed to highlight unfairness, etc, and your character is supposed to be a noble victim, suffering with no end.
Listen, even 1984 the character is not without hope. In fact, it is the destruction of hope at the end that makes the book a tragedy.
Once while very depressed I wrote a character whose only function was to be victimized/have walls dropped on him. The book didn’t work — even for me — and no one really wants to read this, unless they feel it is an obligation or that it is somehow good for them. And good books are very rarely spinach, endured as an obligation.
You don’t even need to end a book designed to show unfairness or victimhood in a tragedy. Sometimes the underdog wins, or at least escapes the system altogether. The only people who oppose escapism are jailers. And if we wanted reality, we wouldn’t read fiction.
3- Keep your characters consistent. If you had an excellent education, as I did, you might feel a compulsion not to let anyone be completely clean. Your hero might have to sleep around or whatever to make it feel real or worthwhile to you (and I feel sorry for you. I’ve found there are in fact real people who are heroes, or brave, or pure all the way through, no matter what our educations tells us.)
That’s fine, but give us hints at the beginning, and also be very careful to balance the thing so the character is still admirable despite having flaws. This is a difficult thing to do, because fiction is (DUH) not reality, and you can “sully” a character much more easily than in real life.
For instance, I’ve had friends who were sluts (no, really) and I didn’t think any the less of them for it. However, a romance character who can’t help sleeping around with EVERYONE despite being in love with the love interest, is going to be “sullied”. The readers will judge her a slut and stop caring, because after all she’ll sleep with anyone, what does love mean?
In the same way, your detective who is devoted to discovering this crime, can’t be taking bribes for minor stuff on the side. Sure, real detectives who are otherwise admirable can be dirty in minor ways, but again fiction is not reality, and since fiction only shows small snippets of a person’s life, it’s easier to sully that imaginary person.
If you must give your character obvious, glaring flaws almost the equal weight of the virtues, consider the phrase “the virtue of his/her faults” ie. someone who gets angry easily and is choleric might make a very effective fighter/champion for a great cause. You just know he’s going to get into fisticuffs off the battle field, too. As long as you don’t have him beating the defenseless or going so far as to kill someone people will go along with the character.
4- Give the character his/her own internal life an motivations. This goes along with 1. People are not widgets. Don’t have the character be just his profession or his station in life. Give him some sort of interest, one that we’re preferably disposed to be tender towards. Books, or art, or a pet.
This is a brief collection of ideas on how to make your character memorable, but in the end, you have to remember, you have to create a character that is REAL to YOU. If you don’t believe in the character, no one else will, and, no matter how great your plot, you’ll have written, at best, a popcorn book, with an unmemorable character.