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?
This summer we hosted our 12-year-old nephew for two weeks.
He loves to read, too. He arrived with Return of the King, having just read the first two books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy at his grandparents’ house. He quickly moved on to one of the Heir books by Cinda Williams Chima. Then a book I had reserved for him after reading about it in Publisher’s Weekly, X-Isle by Steve Augarde. Then he picked out The Chaos Code by Justin Richards. Then I bought him The Hunger Games (I was shocked he hadn’t already read that).
He liked everything, but especially The Chaos Code and The Hunger Games. In fact, he keeps raving about The Hunger Games (Yippee! Another convert! They are making a movie of this – if you have not already read it, do so now).
But in between those last two books, we hit a wall. I picked various books off the library’s YA shelves. Some he rejected just from the title, others after reading the inside flap. Then we went downstairs to the middle grade section and we had the same problem. He had already read all that he wanted to read (with the exception of The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan which was unfortunately already out).
He would not consider any contemporary fiction. I was shocked at the number of good boy books he is missing out on. He says he only reads contemporary fiction he has to read for school.
Well, we must choose our battles and at least he loves to read. But I couldn’t believe he would rather leave the library empty-handed.
Have you had a similar experience with a reader close to your heart? What did you do?
In my latest research of agents, I have read a number of fantasy novels for teen girls. This is not a genre I would choose to read. I’m more of a mystery and suspense gal. But, I really enjoyed these:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston
Evermore by Alyson Noel
And not a vampire in the bunch! In fact, the only one of these that would classify as a paranormal romance is Evermore. Graceling and The Hunger Games take place in fictional worlds, one a facsimile of old-world Europe, one more like a post-apocalyptic North America. Wondrous Strange takes place in modern-day New York City.
I liked each of them enough that I might actually read their respective sequels and prequels. Just because I want to know more about those characters. Just for fun.
Last week I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. What a ride! This book grabbed me by the throat with one hand and by the heart with the other, and did not let go. I could not put this down. Thank goodness I could call it research. You know, to soften the blow to my family when I sat on my bed or on the couch or at the kitchen table, reading, at every possible moment.
Thanks again to Darcy Pattison for the idea!