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Why Should We Care?

August 11, 2010

Bring the Marlboro man to me,” the dark queen roared to the throng gathered in the great hall.

They delivered him in chains, and threw the prisoner on the steps of the dais. Her eyes lapped over the dusty form of her cowboy—his scuffed brown well-worn boots and thighs bulging under blue jeans. One of her creatures reached to remove his white hat.

“Leave it!” she barked. The guard slithered back to the shadows.

She extended her hand, fingertips dripping in red polish, onyx ring glinting like the eye of a snake.

“Ask me,” she whispered, her body hungry with need.

He looked to her face, righting himself, kneeling in proper begging fashion. His steel blue eyes melted her heart. He wet his lips and spoke at last.

“Where’s my horse?”

I’m going to break with what has been said earlier. Character is what matters most. Getting a character right, and I’m not saying the above is a stellar example of it, makes the story. Yes, you can have an intriguing plot and wonderful storyline and world building, but if the characters aren’t someone you really want to know about, the reader will loose interest.

First, let me underscore what has already been said about writing a flawless manuscript, editing and deep editing. I’m going to assume every new author knows this. For some, this is more difficult than the writing itself. I’d tell a new writer to just write, and write a lot.  Some authors say you have to write a million words first before you can start to consider yourself a writer. The rest will come. And, in some cases, you can hire people to coach, critique or teach you where you are weak.

But get the story down. Get your story down. Get involved with your characters before you worry about the finished manuscript. Brenda Novak once told me, “Write the story you were born to write.” Anne Lamont says, “Every first draft is perfect.” It is what it is, riddled with lumps, warts, passive voice, creative spellings, overuse of pet words. A divine comedy of your own mind, especially if you put it away for a few months or years and then read it over. You’ll think your fifth grader wrote it. Get a big glass (or bottle) of wine and have a good laugh, or cry.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, on to character.

All my favorite books have been largely character driven. Even before I was introduced to the world of romance novels, the literary fiction I grew up on was all character driven: Tale of Two Cities, Gone With The Wind, Dr. Zhivago, War and Peace, Outlander. Who can forget the character Jamie Fraser in Gabaldon’s great Outlander series? Even Twilight, though the storyline is predictable, hooked millions of teen girls and their mothers as readers because of Edward. You don’t even have to say anything more. He’s just Edward. Shout it in a high school hallway and almost every female will know who you are talking about. And it’s been this way for over two years.

I know for some of you even thinking about Twilight makes you cringe. My apologies, but when Stephanie Meyer had something like 26% of books sold in 2008, I think it’s worthy to take notice. We should be so lucky, so good. But the thing is, if she can do it, so can you. Perhaps better.

So, as a new writer, I would work on who the story is about, what their internal and external goals or motivations are, and why should we care if they do or don’t get those goals.

I have judged many contest entries where it seems the writer is impressed with his/her own voice, (that’s an instant turnoff to me), or trying to come up with some unusual shape-shifter creature who is blue-green, lives under a rock and has so many sexual organs the writer appears to be writing erotica. When the author hasn’t taken the time to develop the character from within, the story becomes shallow and flat. I can put those entries down and say, “so what?” It doesn’t hook me, and in this day and age, won’t hook an editor or agent. Just being unique doesn’t cut it. Even if the manuscript was flawless, it could spend eternity at the bottom of a slush pile.

I want a book that grabs me from the very first paragraph and won’t let me go. I want to have it interfere with my family life, my work schedule, and my writing schedule because I can’t put the dang thing down. And then, when I finally finish it, I want to go through withdrawals.

How about you? What books have you read that grab you and won’t let you go? Who are the memorable characters that still buzz around in your head years after you have finished the story? Or ones you re-read over and over again to satisfy your fix?

37 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2010 5:26 am

    Great post, Sharon.

    I totally agree. One of my favorite series is Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson series. I can’t wait to see what mess Mercy gets herself into and how she gets out.

    • August 11, 2010 9:55 am

      Waving over the ocean, Riley!
      I love Patricia Briggs too. I also love Kresley Cole for the same reasons. The environment or world building is important too, but the characters are what really make a book hard to put down.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. August 11, 2010 5:27 am

    I loved this post. Yep, it’s the books that grab us by the neck and don’t let us go that we never forget–and those are the books I want to write. I’m starting a second draft right of my third novel right now (and I may live to regret these words as the story comes back to bite me but I hope I’m right) and I’ve never spent so much time thinking about characters BEFORE writing so it just seems to be somehow easier. Funny, that. Planning. Who knew it could be so beneficial?

    • August 11, 2010 9:59 am

      Hmmm. Might you write vampire series? Grab by the neck? Come back to bite you? Just kidding. The characters do tell you what the story is, don’t they? I once had to have an imaginary date with my hero to “get back into him” after the detour of starting another book. Glad you liked the post. Keep coming back!

  3. August 11, 2010 8:25 am

    Yes, character is King. Tom Sawyer is a great character. Jo March. Oedipus. Stephanie Plum. When you only have to say the name, and people know who you’re talking about, that’s a memorable character.

    Some of my personal favorites that aren’t necessarily well-known are Archer Donovan (Pearl Cove by Elizabeth Lowell), Dane Hollister (Dream Man by Linda Howard), the pirate in Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier (I’m not home; can’t scan my bookshelves). Hmmm, looks like I like men. lol

    I will be interested to see what other folks say because I’m always looking for new books that I love enough to re-read.

    • August 11, 2010 10:06 am

      Carly!
      LOL on the men characters. I have to say I’m sort of the same way. I love to hear what others are reading too. And I know I’ll hear about more than a couple, adding it to my TBR list. That’s why I love these blogs. Thanks for stopping by and hope you come back again.

  4. August 11, 2010 9:40 am

    Great post, Sharon! You’re right. A book can be clever, even interesting. But it’s the books with characters I come to care about that keep me up nights reading “one more chapter.” Like Riley, I’m a huge fan of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. I have also lost much sleep over J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series–love me an oversized vampire. Harry Potter! Harry Dresden! The earlier Anita Blake. And yes, I’m still upset with Kim Harrison over you-know-who (and I won’t say any more because if you’ve read the Hallows series, you know who I mean, and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil it)!

    • August 11, 2010 10:12 am

      Love me an oversized vampire – well, that says it all, doesn’t it? I once heard her say that she thought the best alpha males were vampires: strong, big, conflicted with their soft side but barely able to control their power. Yum. I like those characters to make me weak at the knees, shouting, like I did to Scarlett O’Hara, “Lady, are you nuts?” I think I read the whole book for that one great scene.

      And Suzanne, don’t worry, you’re secret’s safe with me and only about a few thousand other readers! LOL.

      Here’s to a future of puffy red eyes and late nights of glorious reading! Thanks for stopping by, and hope to see you again here.

  5. August 11, 2010 10:50 am

    Hi Sharon! I really enjoyed your post. I always enjoy Linda Howard. Dream Man is my “go to” book. And I just read her newest one, which reminded me why I love Dream Man so much. She writes big, sexy, smoldering alpha heroes but ones with a laid-back kind of charm and sense of humor that is just irresistible. Like you, I want to be that kind of writer. I want to write the story that the reader puts down, then rushes to the computer to see what my backlist is. Withdrawals is a great way to describe it!

    • August 11, 2010 11:58 am

      Thanks, Virna. Smoldering alpha males there at my beck and call! Love it.
      And I happen to know, on good authority, you write those very well yourself!
      Thanks for showing up!

  6. Arletta Dawdy permalink
    August 11, 2010 4:03 pm

    Hi Sharon,
    How sweet it is to find you as a regular on the blog. Your article on character is certain to ring true with most writers of fiction, no matter the genre. Here’s to more interruptions in our daily life and schedules as characters (like yours in “Angel”) fascinate and hold us captive.
    Arletta

    • August 11, 2010 6:14 pm

      Arletta,
      You are too kind. Tinkling bells and trumpets to you.
      Yeah, distractions are where it’s at. For me, that’s when all the magic happens.
      Thanks for stopping by and come back again!

  7. August 11, 2010 5:37 pm

    Hi, Sharon, great post.

    Subjectively, you are right of course. But then so is every writer who gives advice on writing to a readership she or he knows.

    There are readers, of course, who read for plots, just as those who read for character. (OK, so these are probably male! But we do have a point of view!)

    What is important to me, I guess, is balance across all the points we have all made this week…

    Now, not only do I have to cope with following on from C.J and Greg, but you add another level of difficulty to my search for something meaningful to say!

    🙂

    • August 11, 2010 6:12 pm

      And David, you are right about readers reading for plots, but there wouldn’t be one if the character wasn’t believable, and didn’t have conflict and motivations. Not just getting the cat out of the tree, but getting it out because the owner will be late for work and has been warned yesterday if he’s late he’ll get fired, and he’s behind in his house payments, and the cat is his daughter’s favorite, and she only comes to see him once a month. Heaping it on sort of thing, coming from the character.

      I love to be right. And I know you are a great writer with much more experience than I, so can’t wait to see what brilliant things you have to say tomorrow. I pass the baton lovingly.

      Thanks for stopping by, and I needed the reminder on the balance. Not often my cup of tea.

      • August 12, 2010 7:51 am

        You are right, of course… and so am I! There can be no character without a plot. A plot, story-line od r sub-story-line is necessary to build the character. One can gain no impression of character unless the subject is pushed through time – and that requires plot. You cannot learn about the character standing under the tree looking up at his cat! An instant in time, no less, no more! It is time (plot action, movement, etc) that allows us to move back and forth so that we learn about the “true” character… we learn of the events and exxperience that have “made” the owner’s character through plot devices… otherwise you are just “dumping” knowledge on the reader and that does not make a story. I think you rely on plot arcs more than you realise!! Just a thought! 🙂

  8. August 11, 2010 7:25 pm

    Hi Sharon, love the picture. Lynsay Sands writes a vampire saga with The Argeneau Family. No one character stands above the rest, okay, maybe Lucern the romance writer, but the world she has built makes me care about what happens to ANYONE in this family. To me they seem real – flesh and blood – pun intended!

    • August 11, 2010 10:23 pm

      Oh yes! I like her vamps and her world building too. Hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right, the whole darned family leaps off the page.
      Wonderful when you just don’t want it to end. When you don’t care who’s chapter it is, you want to read about all the characters and how they interact with the outside world.

      Thanks for stopping by Jill.

  9. Laura McCann permalink
    August 11, 2010 8:00 pm

    Hi Sharon!! Great post!! Character is absolutely a must for me. I want to like the characters and be concerned about their lives. I’m more partial to Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Rachel Gibson, but it’s still about character!

    • August 11, 2010 10:29 pm

      I’d like to think a good story with compelling characters goes across all genres. And it covers all levels of spice too. If the author has crafted his book well, we will definitely care about the people in them. That’s why I think I love series so much too. I love seeing the same characters, who might be secondary in one book, have their own book the next time around. Like Jill said, we want to know about the whole family and what happens to their lives.

      Thank you and I hope you stop back again. We have fun here! Just wait until you see what the wonderful David has to say…

  10. James Garcia Jr permalink*
    August 11, 2010 10:51 pm

    Well, Sharon. You’ve made quite an impression on the site. Well done! I’m sorry I’m so late to the discussion. My pc caught a cold and we’ve got someone attempting to clean it for us. Thank God I’ve got this nifty iPhone, otherwise I might have been forced to make a large purchase!! Perhaps next week’s topic
    might be Mac or not to Mac! Lol! It has already been decided that there will be no more 12 year old gamers using my computers anymore. He’s 2 for 2 in that rather dubious category.

    • August 12, 2010 1:21 am

      I remember well those days. My daughter was expert at shoving things into the VCR player: brushes, Barbies, a muffin, occasionally a VCR upside down. We had a local guy who would try to fix it. He finally gave up. I think they have to outgrow it. They want what we want, and why shouldn’t they have it? Now that’s a story with two great characters: you and your 12 year old gamer. You the writer, he the gamer warrior. On a collision course.

      I still keep my daughter away from things mechanical, and she’s rewarded me by giving me a granddaughter who is fascinated with the buttons on my cell phone and the DVD player.

      Some things never change.

  11. Linda permalink
    August 11, 2010 11:12 pm

    I too love the alpha males stories. One of my many favorite writers is Nalini Singh her Psy-Changling series as well as her new Series, Guild Hunter. Raphael the archangel and his love for Vampire Hunter Elena Deveraux is wicked. He is dominate with a Capital D.
    When she lays dying in his arms, he having killed the Vampire she was hunting for him, he finds he does not want to live without her and changes her into an angel. Effectively making her an immortal, when Elena realizes that she will outlive her family, Raphael tells her that he could not, would not live without her, so he was not going to apologize for taking this decision from her. That just melted me into little puddles of goo. This series is very character driving.
    Check it out.

    • August 12, 2010 10:58 am

      Linda, I couldn’t agree with you more. Nalini Singh is one of my faves too, and I love Raphael!! There are some passages in that book I’ve dog-eared (okay, this was pre-Kindle, but you can still bookmark there too, just haven’t figured it out for multiple books) and are practically cut through I’ve read them so many times. She does the alpha male characters to a T. I also like Kresley Cole: Hunger Like No Other. IMHO it is one of the best first 50 pages I’ve read. She just won a Rita, and can’t wait to read that one (my TBR list will require me to come back a second time).

      Thanks so much for stopping by and please come back again.

  12. August 12, 2010 10:09 am

    Wow Sharon, this really is a great post…I loved and agree with everything you said, and got a good chuckle out of the first part, with the cowboy.

    I’m a over fixer myself. I’m working on leaving things alone and moving ahead, then going back when I’m DONE and fixing it. Otherwise I’ll stay on the same chapter of days, weeks or even months obsessing..

    I loved the comment about Edward, I’m a Jacob Team myself…But I’m with you I cringe at the books writing and story line, but hey, who am I to criticize, she’s a best seller and I’m not.

    • August 12, 2010 11:06 am

      Lee, I so agree about the “fixing” thing. It’s one of the hardest things I deal with in editing. I once asked Diana Gabaldon how she got through her very long books editing-wise. She shot me back a response like: I love editing! It’s when I polish the jewels of my book, bring it to life. It’s my favorite part.” Of course, she obsesses over every word, too, told me her first drafts are pretty clean, according to her readers. And we quickly found out our styles of getting the story down are totally different. I can write 5000 words in a day and do it regularly, she says she is lucky to get 1500 good words down. Let me emphasize GOOD words. Mine have to be washed, disinfected and beaten to submission. Maybe that’s why it’s harder for me.

      I understand the Jacob thing. I still love Jamie Fraser, who helped me get over Edward. Some of JR Ward’s characters are close, though. Ranger, Yum.

  13. August 12, 2010 11:10 am

    David, well said. Yes, the character isn’t anything unless he/she is embroiled in something important: a plot. And a plot isn’t anything without a character.

    Great distinction and thanks for pointing it out, and for the touchback.

  14. August 12, 2010 1:30 pm

    Sharon! Wonderful post and you really touched on something close to me and my writing. My characters are so real to me, I just hope they become real to the readers too.

    What characters am I obsessed with? Hrmm…I’d have to go with any character from J.D. Brown’s Dark Heirloom. (I know it’s not published yet, but I’ve read it and her characters are just awesome!!)

    I love Drew from CJ’s Vampire Vacation – though I have no idea why! LOL He was a somewhat minor character in that story but he really called to me for some reason.

    And of course, I can’t leave out Fox from Greg’s Land of the Blind – what a guy there! Whew! I’d be scared and awed if I ever met Fox in person – Lordly.

    Hrmm who else. I guess that is the most recent ones from stories I have read. While I love other characters, I think those are the ones that really stuck out in my head the most in the last 6 months. And none of them are published yet! Do you think that’s weird? The characters I remember most are from stories that I read BEFORE publication? Do you think it could be the fact that I know the authors too? *shrug* Who knows. But they definitely stick out in my head more than the characters in other books I’ve read recently.

    • August 12, 2010 2:02 pm

      Vampire Vacation is next on my list. Can’t wait to get into it. I’ll be looking for Drew, sleuthing for him, pining for him….LOL.
      I’ve read some contest entries as well as critiques that I think are every bit as good as ones on the shelves or in cyberspace. I don’t think that’s odd at all. And we’ve all waded our way through books we cold hardly finish they were so bad – and they’re published! I hate to admit it, but I like the fresh, new stuff better, and buy only things released in the last year or so. Then, if I like the voice of the author, I’ll buy the backlist. I don’t have that much time anymore, now that I’m writing (and getting published soon).

      Thanks for your nice comments and glad you’re here with the “bunch” of us nuts.

    • August 13, 2010 10:24 pm

      Aw, thanks Ana. As you know, I am in love with Chakor and Etharas form The Fairy’s Tale Saga. Also, my current obsession is Zsadist the warrior vampire from The Black Dagger Brotherhood series by J.R. Ward.

      Sharon, fantastic post and I couldn’t agree more. I am all about the characters both when I read and when I write. It’s always the idea for a new character that comes to me first, before the setting or the plot. You should see how bad I am … each of my character sketches are 3-5 pages in length. I even went as far to write a 15 page time-line of the events that lead to my villain becoming evil! Haha.

      • August 13, 2010 11:55 pm

        I think your idea of writing pages of sketches is excellent. Many famous artists did sketches before they did their final version. I once had a writing teacher that had a whole list of interview questions to ask our characters. When I get stuck, I ask something silly of them like, “would you rather be rich, or famous?” and just see where they go. Or, “what’s a perfect day for you?” Surprising what can come out.

        Thanks for your nice comments.

  15. August 13, 2010 7:49 am

    Tremendous post, Sharon.

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve had to go back over several characters from the manuscripts for “Hunters” and “Land of the Blind” to fix them into people readers will want to follow.

    I’m the kind of guy who can read a book even if the characters are not interesting or, in the case of the novel “Quicksilver” that I mentioned in my blog, are too good to be true. But, the novel will leave me empty.

    Novels with memorable characters keep me going back to dog-ear the pages until they’re well-worn.

    Of course, the trick is keep the characters interesting throughout. I used to enjoy Honor Harrington in David Weber’s “Honorverse” series, but she got so much larger in life that I actually found myself rooting for the bad guys.

    I don’t want to end up like that.

    Thanks, Sharon.

    • August 13, 2010 10:54 am

      I have to laugh at your last comment, “rooting for the bad guys”. I do that all the time. In fact, my villain, by the end of the book, is almost more fun than the hero. By the close, I’m ready to give him a shot in the spotlight. I start out making him really evil and bad, and by the end, I’m saying, “Well, if we do this and do that, he could be…” Sort of like what I used to do in my dating years ago, and it got me into trouble…If I didn’t let go right away, I could talk myself into thinking anyone was Prince Charming. I had to turf a few frogs.

      One contest judge last year loved my bad guy so much, she commented I should turf the hero. Well, I knew I had some issues to resolve there with the manuscript.

      Thanks for your nice comments, as usual.

  16. August 13, 2010 11:02 am

    Kudos! You did a great job, covered the topic beautifully, and got lots of readers thinking (as the amount of comments can attest to). Glad to have you on board and I wish you only success!

    • August 15, 2010 12:59 pm

      So glad you invited me. I feel like I’ve found a wonderful, creative home amongst trusted friends.

  17. August 15, 2010 1:29 am

    Hi Sharon,

    Enjoyed the post.

    I have to go with Jamie Fraser, too. Gotta love a guy in a kilt. lol I’ve read all the books in the Outlander series and listened to them on audio.

    I also love J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. You fall in love with her characters and want to know what they’re up to. The stories are like a vamp soap opera with complicated subplots and tortured heroes you can’t help but fall in love with.

    • August 15, 2010 12:58 pm

      Thank you, Karen, for stopping by. I’m honored to have another angel writer in our midst! I’ve just run across Karen on another blog, and have ordered her book ELI: Warriors of the Light on my Kindle. Her exerpt was smokin’ and I’m going to enjoy the book, I’m sure.

      And now that I know about your fondness for JR Ward and the Outlander Series, I’m even more convinced I’ll enjoy your books. Love those tortured heros. You see their heroic side before they do, which makes them such a compelling read.

      Thanks, Karen. Hope we see you again here!

  18. August 18, 2010 10:29 pm

    Way to go Sharon! My Buddy! My partner!

    Wicked Writers Wednesday Wrocks!

    I agree with you 100%… character – that’s what sells me every time.

    Oh – and can you Pllleeeeezzzzzeeeeeee finish that little smidgin of smut with the Marborlo man? I am old enough to remember when cigarette commercials were legal on television.

    We’ve come a long way, baby! (get it? I KNEW you would!)

    Welcome to the blog with a big Wet Wednesday splash!

    You wicked, wild woman you!

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