Writing

Why (In My Opinion) Books Built Around Characters Are Better

imageThe best books are the ones that change you–the reader.  They stay with you for a long time and lead you to question or think about either yourself or the world around you in a different way.

That is–those are the best books in my opinion.  There are plot junkies out there who might say otherwise, but they may never have been shown how to find the deeper meanings in literature.  To read closely.  To probe.  Once you learn how to do this, you don’t see movies, read books, or even listen to music in the same way ever again.  You’re always searching for hidden treasure…and are sometimes disappointed when you find yourself treading shallow water.

There are so many facets or ways of looking at a good book that it’s really unfair to take it all apart.  What makes it work is the symphony all those pieces create when they work together.

But If I were to start in one place and say, “Here is the heart of the story,” I would start with character.  In order to create that depth of emotion and change in attitude so desirable in a well-written book, you need to be able to access the reader on a fundamental level.  The only way you are going to get there is through strong characters.  Characters are vehicles for the reader.  We follow them as they themselves are tortured, defeated, learn, grow, and change.  Build your book around a strong, multi-faceted character with flaws and goals.  Put them in a situation that is really uncomfortable for them–that will force them to change.  Raise the stakes and make their goals something they care deeply about.  Then, hold that carrot away from them.  What will your protagonist give up to achieve his or her goal?  Their job?  Their life?  A piece of their soul?

Concepts in books can also be powerful, but they fall flat without a strong character to drive the plot.  This is a mistake I sometimes see in the paranormal and sci fi / fantasy genres.  Writers get so carried away with the CONCEPT that they forget about CHARACTERS and wind up with these wishy-washy protagonist stand-in who has no real substance or goals.

Say, for example, you decide to write a book about mermaids.  You have a few ideas for scenes in mind and start writing an outline, including this really cool part where your mermaid chick sings the highest note ever and uses mermaid magic to create a giant tidal wave of awesome!  Then you begin to write–forgetting to develop your character (or unaware that you should).  As you draft, you put words into your protagonist’s mouth and force her to do things—not in order to achieve true change but moves that are completely (sometimes laughably) out of character.  You force your character to do these things because you want something in the plot to happen just the way you had imagined.  Really, it should go the other way around.  Character CHOICES should drive the plot, and these choices need to be based on significant goals.

Let me ask you something.  When a reader turns the last page of your book, do you want them to say, “Gee, such-and-such scene was pretty cool, and I really loved the magic at the end,” or would you rather hear them say, “OMG, that book really messed with me!  I couldn’t put it down because I had to see what happened to (insert your protagonist here).  It really makes me think…(insert personal insight here).”

Now I’m really interested to hear your thoughts because I have a feeling some of you will disagree with me. 🙂

Would you rather have a plot junkie as a reader who just eats up the cool stuff that happens or a reader who reads deeply and who might be changed for all time by your awesome writing?

Michelle Joyce Bond

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27 thoughts on “Why (In My Opinion) Books Built Around Characters Are Better

    1. I know I kept missing it, too when I first started writing. It took an agent getting back to me (after asking for a partial because she liked my idea) and telling me that she just couldn’t connect with my main character (Who is she? What does she desire?) for it to click. I wish I’d learned this sooner. 🙂

  1. I think character is more important. If the emphasis is too much on plot then we tend to get cardboard characters moved around at the dictates of the narrative, which is not very interesting. On the other hand, I don’t aspire to change the reader ‘for all time.’ My intention would be to hold interest, entertain, and get the reader thinking along the way.

  2. I love falling in love with the characters, but if the plot doesn’t keep me turning the pages, I’ll lose interest. So I guess I want both. Long bits of character introspection test my patience, but endless action without character reaction does so as well. I think that’s one of the reasons I love Stephen King’s books. His characters are beautifully developed, and his story line keeps you turning the pages. The best of both worlds. 🙂

  3. Aloha Michelle,
    I agree – If the characters aren’t driving, I’m not going to ride the story for long.
    Also, I would prefer to be made to know and care about the characters before the ‘real troubles’ begin. That may be old thinking. I guess in an attempt to capture the reader’s attention, I see stories that dive right into the action with characters I’ve yet to care about. It doesn’t work so well for me – however, it seems to sell books, so maybe I should get over myself.
    Michelle, good post. You made me spend half an hour considering my feelings on this. I’m better off for it – good job.
    A Hui Hou (until next time),
    Wayne

    1. Thanks, Wayne! P.S., if “new” thinking is diving right into a fast-paced plot with thin, boring characters who have no real substance (hmmmm, reminds me of some popular movies I’ve seen), I’d rather not have it! Even the best actions flicks (if I were to use that as an example) have complex characters that we’re rooting for every step of the way. 🙂

  4. This is where Hollywood falls short most of the time, imo. They think it must be one or the other. The great character or the great plot. It’s rare to see both nowadays. But with more personal and smaller audience reach, like blogging, I believe it’s all about the characters. When I write scripts, whether it be for television or film, I find most of the time I’ll have a basic idea of the plot but usually let a character develop out of that and then let the character take me for a spin in his own world. If a character is interesting enough nobody will care what they’re doing!

    1. That’s so true! It makes me think of recent re-writes of older movies that try to make things more dark or gritty–changing the characters to suit the new dark/gritty plot-world they’ve constructed. So we wind up with these non-characters, ugh. 🙂

  5. Characters all the way! I’m the exact opposite of a plot junkie. Characters and concepts and literary values for me! I’m sure if I ever get my short story book published I’ll receive a lot of negative reviews for being boring (probably justified, too).

    I am curious though, about the point of synthesis. I create characters long before plot or story begins; before I even consider writing the first word; and I’m just wondering where other people prefer to start a story.

    Where does synthesis begin for you? (Blog post ideas, ahoy!)

    1. That is a good blog idea! I guess my stories begin from all different places…but I always go back to creating a solid character (with all kinds of notebooking!) and then rebuild (if I already had some plot ideas) the story around the character. I should flesh this out in another post. Thank you! 🙂

  6. You are so right. I tend to have an issue that interests me at the heart of my novels and have to work really hard to get to know my characters and love them enough to make them come alive. I feel dissatisfied if I read a book in which there are no characters I like enough to really care what happens to them.

    1. Ditto! I often come up with an issue idea and then construct characters to fit it, including paranormal traits that first make their lives hell but they will learn to use them to help reach their goal…but magic is NEVER the entire solution. I like complex characters who ultimately achieve their goals as a result of their internal development. That’s what makes writing fantasy/paranormal extra tricky. 🙂

  7. Hi, Michelle. I am sooooo glad I read this post! I’m currently working on a book (my fourth? fifth? who can count? it’s the newest one and the one I think I’m actually going to finish for a change), but I’m struggling. So far I’ve been all about the characters and their experiences, relationships, challenges and tragedies. It’s been exhilarating to work on this book up until my partner gave me some much needed feedback: “There’s no plot! Where the heck is the plot?”
    Ummm… the plot… right… I was devastated and dejected for about 10 days and then started to rally again. Yes, a plot needs to be there. So, all I have to do is come up with one! Poetry is so much easier… Thanks again for posting this. It was thought provoking and just what I needed. Good luck to you in all you do!!

    1. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful reply! It’s good to hear you have such a good critique partner that can give you the feedback and encouragement to rally back. Keep me updated–rewrites are hard (trust me, I know), but a lot of good can come out of them. 🙂

  8. Interestingly, you could have a plot that moves the character without the character’s interaction because they have no character, which is their character, thereby developing a character that doesn’t develop their character. If you get what I’m saying, and if done right, it could be an interesting story, though it would likely require being hilarious or super sad or people wouldn’t stick around for the length of it.

    Two dimensional characters are boring, which is why most movies, if you go in there for actual character based exploration are boring, but lots of people love explosions and will watch crappy characters in sub par plots :: cough :: transformers :: cough :: because of them. Most people don’t seem to enjoy depth or thinking.

      1. The I like pretty colors crowd. Don’t get me wrong, you know I love watching things explode, but I like to know they explode for a good reason, or it has to be a cheesy 80s action movie like Commando.

  9. I had a bit of a think about this. I’d have to say that I’m one of those people who like books which are both character and plot driven because I think character and plot go hand in hand in terms of stories. You can’t have one without the other ……..

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