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Hooking the Reader: The Character Investment

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hooking the ReaderI had the opportunity during my Christmas vacation to read the ARC of a historical romance. The opening Hook Line was good, the first few paragraphs strong. But then as I read, I started losing confidence in the writer. You see, the story started with a bang . . . then went stagnant pretty quickly as the author had to go back and explain, in about two full pages of narrative, the events immediately preceding the opening line. Then, the hero, whose POV this is all seen through, not only comes up with an implausible plan—which takes several pages—he ends up accidentally taking an action that makes those pages and pages of his original plan null and void, as the accident sends him on the run. Then, once he’s on the run, the logic of the story falls apart even more with various and sundry minor characters suddenly popping up as someone he’s supposedly built friendships with, not to mention the poor historical research.

I put the book down at the end of the fifth chapter and haven’t picked it up since. What might have kept me reading? A character I liked. There are a lot of flaws I’m willing to overlook in a book if the author immediately draws me into the character, gives me a reason to care what happens to him. In that ARC, not only did I not care what happened to the main character, he was unlikable.

Once again, Creating Credible Characters is a topic I’ve already covered at length, but let’s take a few minutes to look at how, once we create them, we can use them to hook the reader into the story.

A couple of weeks ago, my agent forwarded an e-mail to me from an editor at one of the big CBA houses in response to the proposal for the Ransome Trilogy. The gist of the very long e-mail was that while they like my writing, they don’t like how gloomy the heroine is when we first meet her. They wanted to know if there was a way I could either revise the opening or write a prologue that would introduce Julia when she’s in a happier frame of mind, so that the reader understands that Julia isn’t going to be like that throughout the whole book. Guess what I’ll be working on this weekend! 😉

Last year, I judged an entry in the YA category of the Genesis in which the main character, in first-person POV, was so extremely negative, after a couple of pages, I didn’t want to read any further.

Yet there are some authors who are so adept at characterization, they can introduce a gloomy or negative character as a POV protagonist in the beginning of their novels and they don’t lose us. The secret is building the rest of the narrative around the character so that the reader feels invested in what happens to the character—whether for ill or for good—and wants to know what happens next.

One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from historical novelist Jeff Shaara: “When the characters are ready, the story will come out of me.” As a character-driven writer, this has almost become my mantra. For me, story comes from character. If the characters aren’t well developed when I start writing, or if I’ve misinterpreted who they are, I write myself into a hole and usually have to start over. When I start thinking of a story idea, I don’t just write out a summary of what the story’s about. I write page after page of backstory for each main character—figuring out who they are before I can figure out what the story’s about. Because I have to care about the characters before I can start writing their story.

Not only do they have to be real to me, they have to be unique. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Begin with an individual and you will find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you will find that you have created—nothing.” I think that’s the problem with most books in which we aren’t immediately invested in the main character from the first page. The author didn’t spend as much time getting to know the character before they started writing. They just started out with a type—a “good guy,” perhaps—and worked that type into their story.

Readers don’t necessarily have to like our characters—I mean, look at the popularity of characters such as Scarlett O’Hara or Hannibal Lechter. They can be morally ambiguous or even morally reprehensible like those two are—and yet the authors managed to draw us in, to make us want to know what happens to them. Readers must have a reason to invest in the characters, to care what happens to them next—even if it is more of the morbid curiosity that makes us slow down to rubberneck at a car accident.

For Discussion:
Who is your favorite literary character? What makes you like (or even loathe) that character? How was the character introduced in the book? Why did you care what happened to that character? What was it about the character that made you want to read the book?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, March 20, 2008 4:01 pm

    One of my favorite characters is Amelia Peabody, a Victorian Egyptologist created by Elizabeth Peters. I love her because the stories are told from Amelia’s POV, and she is a delightful character who sees the world through Amelia-tinted glasses. She is funny, astringent at times, and not one to suffer fools gladly.

    Elizabeth employs the tone of a Victorian Memoir, using terms like Gentle Reader and The Reader will Note…I love it because in today’s world that form is rarely used, and Elizabeth combines it with a fast paced plot and twisty mysteries that I NEVER figure out but love nonetheless.

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  2. Thursday, March 20, 2008 10:07 pm

    One of my favorite books is Bodie Thoene’s Vienna Prelude. Murphy and Elisa, the two main characters, are so easy to root for yet they’re not perfect. I read that book back in high school, and I still reread it and think of the characters often.

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  3. Friday, March 21, 2008 10:04 pm

    That is a very good question, but I’ll have to think of it 16 times, because I don’t particularly have a favorite character at any given time.

    What I think I’ll do instead is compare a number of them and look for a trend. Off the top of my head the best I can think is that the POV is always very close to the character I like.

    I don’t admire them from afar: it’s either 1st person or close 3rd.

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