I’ve been thinking a lot lately about character. What makes a good character? How do you balance a character’s flaws with the qualities needed to move the plot along? What makes a character likable (or, better word, relatable)? What does likable really mean anyway?
A few months ago, A-Read read The Hunger Games and I was reminded about how prickly Katniss is. During her preparations for the Games, she is often told she has to find ways to make others like her, or find ways around her unlikability. A writer friend and I decided to reread the beginning of The Hunger Games and try to determine what made a potentially unlikable character likable.
(Preface: It’s hard to find what makes Katniss unlikable when I’ve read the entire trilogy and seen all the movies. I know her. I like her. I root for her.)
In the first chapter, there are several small things that make her potentially unlikable. But there are many things that make her likable and they all have to do with relationships. Her relationship with Prim. Her relationship with Gale. Her relationship with Madge. Even her relationship with Peeta at that early stage when they’ve never spoken a single word to each other. It’s especially her relationship with Prim, both gentle and fierce at the same time, that humanizes Katniss and makes you like her. How she’ll protect and provide for Prim above herself, to the point of risking death for her.
This importance of relationships really struck me. Agents and editors often say they want character-driven novels. But what makes a character? It’s more than someone’s likes and dislikes, goals and dreams. Conflict moves a plot forward. And conflict comes from relationships.
People can tell you how to create relatable characters, over and over and over. But sometimes you have to see it for yourself, see it in action, and really feel it (show don’t tell, right?).
Who else would you describe as prickly and potentially unlikable, and how did the author make you root for her or him?
I’m currently in the process of spiffing up the synopsis of one of my manuscripts, so I thought I’d share the best advice I’ve received lately: The Essential 10 from YAtopia.
Good luck to all those in the query trenches!
What are you currently spiffing up?
The great thing about living in the internet age is that it’s so easy to find out almost anything instantly. A couple of weeks ago, I was revising my MG wip and wanted a minor character to use a tire iron. The main character, however, has never seen a tire iron and so would have to describe what this other guy was using to bat away huge birds bent on doing damage. So I looked up tire irons and within seconds was looking at various images of…yup, tire irons.
On the flip side, however, is that now Amazon keeps showing me tire irons for sale on a bunch of websites I go to regularly. I’m not planning to buy a tire iron. I don’t need to look at pictures of tire irons when keeping up with friends on Facebook.
And…if the FBI ever searched my internet history, they’d see I’d looked up tire irons. Hopefully they’d draw the obvious conclusion: I’m a writer doing research. Yup, that’s the obvious conclusion. Because why else would I need to look at tire irons?
(Maybe I grew up reading and watching too many mysteries, but what the heck is a tire iron really for? I’ve never seen it used on anything to do with tires.)
What other potentially incriminating things have I researched? Various endangered animals. Poisons that occur naturally in certain plants. Ghost-like creatures of legends. Deadly weather events. Mummies. Visiting hours at sensitive places like the Temple Mount in Israel and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Stuff related to the Rwandan genocide.
(Can you imagine if all of those subjects were for the same novel? Yikes!)
What’s the most incriminating or embarrassing thing you’ve researched?
Once again, I’ve let too much time go by without letting you know how my little readers are doing. In a word, terrific. And I really shouldn’t call them little. They wouldn’t appreciate it.
I noticed last year that Sprite would mostly ignore my reading suggestions, but he can’t wait to read whatever his brother has read and enjoyed. So now he’s ploughing through Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, about to finish the 3rd book, The Mark of Athena. He has also made a slow start on Joseph Delaney’s Revenge of the Witch, Book 1 in the Last Apprentice series (recently made into a movie called Seventh Son). While he enjoys this book, because we have it only on the Kindle, which he can’t bring to school, he only reads it occasionally on weekends or during school vacations, if he isn’t already into something else that he can’t put down.
I regularly peruse A-Read’s bookshelves to see what he has finished that can now be passed on to Sprite. Quite a lot, as it turns out.
A-Read just finished Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer, which we bought at a Jasper Fforde event last year and had signed by the man himself. Despite this excitement, it still took me months to convince A-Read to read it. Now, of course, he’s glad and can’t wait to read the next in the series.
And A-Read just started learning about Ancient Greece in Social Studies. He is so excited! He was especially chuffed to have been the only kid to be able to answer the teacher’s question last week about some small god or goddess. I had to remind him that Rick Riordan’s books are fiction and only loosely based on the original myths. “I know, Mom.” I’m sure you can imagine the tone of voice and sighs of exasperation that accompanied his statement. (He is a pre-teen after all.)
Having just seen the movie, Home, both boys are excited to read The True Meaning of SmekDay by Adam Rex.
What are your kids into reading right now?
I’m very excited to announce the publication of one of my freelance projects, one tiny book in a very large series for schools, aligned to the Common Core.
I wrote this book 3-1/2 years ago, and I’ve worked on a number of other projects since then, but all of them have a pen name on them. So this is the only thing I have, so far, with my real name. Please forgive my excitement.
I couldn’t help asking RocketMan to take some pictures of me receiving my books. Someday, I will post pictures of my published dream projects. *wink wink*
What are you proud of today?
How did it get to be the end of March already?! And now, where do I start?
My day job has been crazy since late summer. I look forward to when things will slow down, but that never seems to happen.
My boys are growing and reading and changing. A-Read is currently reading our signed copy of Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer. Sprout is reading The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan.
Two freelance projects came out in the fall and 2 more are due in the next six weeks.
Audiobooks have continued to save my sanity, but I’ve taken a break this month to participate in a 30 Day French Immersion Challenge at work. Now I spend my commute listening to podcasts in French.
I have been writing. A middle grade manuscript is steeping and I’m revising a young adult manuscript.
And I have been reading. A friend and I are concentrating on characterization this year, so I’ve been analyzing YA novels and reading writing books that focus on character.
Okay, friends, what’s new with you in this new year (that’s not so new anymore – oops)?
I’ve been conducting an informal experiment.
My part-time day job has been more hours than I signed up for since September and has included a 5-day commute. Somewhere around November, the commute started wearing on me. It was great, at first, to have alone time to think about writing and plotting and revising. And to listen to my favorite tunes. Little by little, I no longer appreciated the alone time to plot and sing along to P!nk and Amel Bent. I felt so unproductive.
An idea had been brewing for a while but I kept forgetting to figure out the details. Maybe because once at home, I was juggling kid activities with kid needs and writing whenever I could. Finally, last weekend, I discovered that my public library loans out audiobooks through Overdrive.
My once unproductive commute is now for listening to We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Yay!
I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to process the words the same way. That I wouldn’t be able to concentrate and would miss stuff. Or that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the road.
It’s been great. And I’ve gotten into the story just as much as I do when I’m reading. I think about the story when I’m not in the car. I miss it over the weekend.
Most of all, I’m so excited to have found a way to read for an extra hour every day!
Do you listen to audiobooks? What’s your favorite thing about them?