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.





Filed under Uncategorized

51 responses to “A Matter of Character

  1. Also, if you have a lot of characters, make sure to give them tags and mention the tags. “The bearded one was talking again.” Even if that’s all that’s memorable about them, the reduction in confusion is worth it.

  2. CACS

    Three thoughts.

    Cooking and craft books and magazines have been my go to pop-corn reads, short sections with no plot line to forget if you don’t get back for months.

    I am not always very good at names, in real life or in reading. If I can recall a phrase, a description, an incident or an idea that caught my imagination, that is one marker of a book that was worth the time and effort it takes this dyslexic to read.

    For me a marker of a good book is if, when I come to the end, I am both sad to see it come to an end and satisfied at the same time.

    • Yep. Some of us (like myself) content with anomia.

      I have to keep a summary list of characters, with a brief of why they exist, for my writing. Otherwise, I won’t remember the durn name! (Just now, it bothered me, I had to look up the last name of my own main character that goes through most of an entire series… “Alexander Cassander… Cassander… uh, uh, what did I name that guy???)

      Now, I remember some because I built in a mnemonic – like the dissonance in the aforementioned character’s first and middle names. But I can’t do that all the time.

      • Grr. “Contend” – I’m not content with my condition…

      • CACS

        Friends who took the 500 level Russian literature at college told me that the professor suggested that in order for the students to keep better track of the characters they should make an index card with the name of each character and then make note of the various nick names other characters called them.

  3. And then there’s readers like me… the more I like the book, the _less_ I remember about it, often including character names. This is a Good Thing, because it means the book is fresh again when it’s reread.

    Conversely, if I remember a lot about the book, chances are it’s all stuff I didn’t like.

  4. Civilis

    I’m going to have to politely disagree, to some extent. It might be that I’ve spent enough time in other media where you personify a single character, such as pencil-and-paper RPGs and video games, where I remember a character by what they’ve done; their name is just an unimportant detail.

    Terry Pratchett has some good examples in-universe. At one point, we get to see the inside of the Assassin’s Guild, with art of famous… ‘clients’ of the guild, rather than its members, each with a discreet little plaque with the name of the guild member responsible for ‘servicing’ that client. There is the reminder, however, that if you serviced a really important ‘client’, they wouldn’t need to put a plaque with your name on it at all. Another book, The Last Hero, ends with the nameless bard and the line “Nobody remembers the singer. The song remains.”

    As a reader, I want to remember the song, not the singer. When I think of the characters I’ve played (all of which are part of stories I’ve helped create) I remember what was done: the seemingly impossible feats, humorous antics, dim-witted mistakes and even heroic sacrifices all, and through those I can hopefully remember the character, and, sometimes, even their names.

  5. I think this might be a per-person thing. I’m not very good at remembering names in real life, and thinking back over the books I’ve read recently, probably not in fiction either. I can remember the name of the main character in Project Pope, the Simak book I’m reading right now, and enjoying quite a bit, mainly because it’s Tennyson—like the poet. Similarly, a lesser character is named Decker, so I remember it, because, again, it’s a unique but familiar name, even though I never particularly liked the character in Star Trek. But the main secondary character? Lisa, maybe. But I’m probably wrong. Don’t even get me started on the head of the Search Project or the robot cardinal we meet most often (Theodorius? Theodosius?)

    And the last book I read, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I loved, but all the names were unfamiliar to me and if I saw the main character’s name I’m sure I’d recognize it. It’s on the tip of my tongue, but it isn’t coming off. Now, his ex-wife, Bina, I remember. Because it’s an odd but familiar name, though why it’s familiar I don’t remember.

  6. 3- Keep your characters consistent.

    There once was an urban fantasy series that I enjoyed. It contained a richly realized world that was probably right around the corner, a flawed but likable heroine, intriguing protagonists and villains, a uniquely bizarre job and co-workers …

    Then the writer decided to destroy the MC and rip the spines out of her love interests and turn them into caricatures.

    I still have the first 8 books in the series, but the dear (demented) writer isn’t getting anymore $$$$ from me.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Was that the series that became “sex all the time”?

      • Why yes it did. IIRC, our heroine was essentially celibate in the early books, but morphed into super!slut.

        Now, if I had picked up the series in the erotica section, I wouldn’t have been so upset. However …

        • Laurie

          I was in the local mystery bookstore, talking with one of the staff about possible reads, and I mentioned that I had liked that author, “for the first six books, until” … I broke off, and a lady next to me, a complete stranger, piped up with “Until she lost her mind?” “Yes!” I said and we grinned at each other.

          Publishers Weekly said it best: (Heroine) needs to put her clothes back on and get back to work.

  7. mrsizer

    I read in giant chunks of text with no subvocalization so the names – even words (I didn’t realize that the text “voila” was the word “wala” until I was in high school) – I remember are not necessarily what the author wrote. Aragorn was Argon until the movies came out. Still no clue who his father was; Athorn is not right.

    For example: The cat-man and transmogrified-woman from Lisanne (sp?) Norman’s Sholan books. I have no idea what their names are, but I remember them.

    I’m trying for one-syllable, English-common names for the (nanowrimo fail) work-in-progress. That can get confusing, too, though. Jake? Jack? John? who was that guy?

  8. I’d state the test a little differently–the books I really love are the ones that have characters that I wish were real people so I could hang out with them.

    Too often I’ve put a book (or movie) down because I simply did not want to spend time with the people in it. I try to make even my antagonists personable. That’s one of several reasons why I tend to avoid obscenity in dialogue–it’s dull to listen to someone whose only intensifier is “f#chin'”.

    The way that I see it is that I am throwing a party at the reader’s house, and I want her or him to want to invite my characters in, and invite them back for sequels.

    • TRX

      I once listened to an audiobook whose main character who, being Italian, was probably something like “Fugazzi.” The reader consistently pronounced the name more like “F’Goatse”, which… has unfortunate connotations.

    • (Nods) One of my criteria for whether or not a book is good is whether or not I would want to have lunch with at least one of the characters in the book. Also, this character should not be a villain.

      • I’ve dumped entire TV series when I realized they were ALL scumbags, and I didn’t want to spend time with any of them. ‘Narcos’ comes to mind. The husband liked it, which gave me something I could leave him to with a clear conscience when I wanted to get something done in the evening.

        Ditto ‘Breaking Bad.’

        I NEED to identify with a character having some internal integrity. As I writer, I supply that – deliberately. A friend wrote a series about a couple of Roman soldiers who were thoroughly degenerate – and I couldn’t read of their escapades.

        Give me someone I wish I might have been, had I been born them into their circumstances.

        • snelson134

          Gotham. Gawd. After about 4 episodes, all I could think of is that Bruce Wayne would have used his money to build an orbital bombardment system and take it out. You talk about, literally, a place that made you understand the Lord’s attitude towards Sodom and Gomorrah.

          • The tragedy of Gotham was that somewhere in the first or second season the focus shifted more to Jim Gordon as an actual hero, and he was a good guy battling impossible odds, and it was great, because he was certainly fighting actual evil. Then the writers caught themselves and the bulk of the focus is on the highly yucky villains with an over-the-top ick factor.

            • snelson134

              Yeah, that’s a whole ‘nother rant: Batman should have been charged as an accessory to murder for not putting a bullet through Joker’s head after he walked from his first atrocity.

          • You either give in to the darkness, including in what you write – or struggle, in your own small way, to show where the light is or may be cultivated.

            Only one of these is worth your life.

  9. Meh, I’ve never put much stock in remembering character names all that much. Outside of a handful of books that really impacted me I can’t remember the names of the characters. Plot lines are something I remember much better.

    The Three Musketeers – remember the names
    20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea – couldn’t tell you who the characters are outside of Capt. Nemo.
    Ender’s Game – remember the names
    Snowcrash – remember the (Hiro) protagonist’s name only
    Rendevous With Rama – awesome story, no clue what the names are

  10. You might toss in here somewhere the notion that the names should be relatively recognizable. Whylim may be your clever twist on William, but either William or Bill is probably easier for the reader to remember. As for X’phrbtct … hopefully it’s the only character with a name starting with X’ because most of us have no hope of remembering that name, at least until we turn it into something that we can pronounce, if then. Actually, generalize that — the characters, and their identifying whatevers (names, tags, twitches, funky hair) should be relatively easy to remember and separate.

  11. Luke

    I think it’s not a bad rule of thumb, but it’s not a good one, either. There are just too many good stories where the main character isn’t even given a name.

    • Even lacking a name to hang on the character, do you remember the character? I cannot name the robot in Asimov’s story (Bicentennial Man?) that wanted to become human, and eventually did, for a moment, but that is perhaps the only character of his I remember at all.

      • I can remember very few Asimov characters well, and mostly from his mysteries. In Murder at the ABA I can clearly remember one of the major characters was named… Isaac Asimov.

    • Rebecca. But my idea was more like “the main character is memorable.”

  12. I use re-reading for the same purpose Mrs. Hoyt uses popcorn books. It’d be interesting to explore: the dichotomy between the re-readers and the not.

    How many of you have had to buy another copy of a book because you wore out the original?

    Also the distinction between popcorn and potato chip books. How many of you can read just one Dick Francis? And how does one master THAT skill.

    Because the potato chip books are also eminently re-readable.