I’m going to start this by disproving my point. Kinda.
Think about The DaVinci Code. That’s one of those books that everybody’s read, right? Or, at least, one of those books that everybody has an opinion about. It’s an interesting and, obviously, very successful story — at least, in terms of making money.
It’s got an interesting premise: a professor chases the law and hunts down the Holy Grail over three countries in a night. It moves at a breakneck pace; Dan Brown is constantly tossing “facts” and information at you — everything from information about the Star of David to the birthline of Jesus, to Swiss Banking, to how a library search engine works. It’s easy to get swept away in the short chapters.
A lot of the criticism comes, however, after you’ve been swept through the story, and you go back and peel it apart. Especially when you start looking at character.
Robert Langdon is too damn perfect. He’s a duly tenured Harvard professor in a made-up field, the perfect academic, the perfect teacher, the perfect author, the perfect investigator. He can’t keep the FBI, NSA, and every other secretive organization in the universe off his balls. He’s too smart. He knows every clandestine religious organization that’s ever existed.
By the time we meet him in The DaVinci Code, he’s even besties with the Pope.
The only thing that he has that even approaches a flaw, is that it seems he can’t keep a woman in his life. Luckily, each of his adventures throws a gorgeous, exotic, exciting woman that is oddly like him in his direction. After they solve the mystery, they have a night of great (off-page) sex, before they go back to their own lives.
The story moves so fast, he tosses such a barrage of everything!! at the readers that he’s able to get away with cardboard cutouts.
But you, dear aspiring author, aren’t going to do that. Because you understand that character is the heart of the story.
In her craft book Write Away, author Elizabeth George says it best:
“If you don’t understand that story is character and not just idea, you will not be able to breathe life into even the most intriguing flash of inspiration.”
Many of the new writers I see are all obsessed with their ideas. And, on one hand, that is a good thing. An interesting, well-executed idea can truly elevate a novel.
But my sense is, while they know their idea backward and forward, they have no idea of who their character is. No name, no history, no heart.
They’re building up their idea so much, that they think they can drop a cardboard cutout therein, and have the whole thing work.
But, novels like The DaVinci Code notwithstanding, we read stories for character. That’s what we carry away at the end.
Elizabeth George says:
“What we take away from our reading of a good novel mainly is the memory of character. This is because events — both in real life and in fiction — take on greater meaning once we know the people who are involved in them. [. . .] This is true of every great book, and the names of those men, women, and children shine more brightly in the firmament of literary history than do the stories in which they operated. [. . .] Once we have begun it, we continue reading a novel largely because we care about what happens to the characters.”
Think about your favorite novel. It doesn’t have to be a best-seller, it doesn’t have to be a big-name novel. Just think about your absolute favorite.
What do you love most about that story? Is it the premise? Is it the things that happen to the character? Or is it the character that shines through all of those hardships and either wins or loses?
I think about Melinda Sordino, silent and stoic and picking her flaky lips, trying to find her voice. I think about Moby, who did everything he could to help his best friend, Sarah Byrnes escape from an abusive father, but even more, find the will to escape.
I even think about how J.K. Rowling made me care about a trust-fund jock, who grew up to become a cop. In another character’s world, I might be conditioned to dislike a character like that. But when we see the world through Harry’s eyes, when we see his struggles, we love him anyway.
So think about your characters. Invest in them. Make them come to life. Because, somewhere out there, you have readers who will love them.
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer.