Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Good characters make a novel go.  A great plot is a must, for it's the vehicle for the story, but the characters drive the car.

I love good characters.  I like reading a book where I care about what happens to the person at the center of the vortex.  Do I want them to find success?  Do I want them happy?  Or am I thrilled when they plunge 100 feet off a cliff to an icy doom?  The desired outcome is unimportant, as long as I have some kind of desire for them.

What has surprised me throughout my writing has been how characters have evolved during the story.  When I start writing, I usually have a pretty good idea how I see the people acting and reacting.  However, as any writer worth his salt will tell you, a character's actions will often surprise you.  Yes, that sounds haughty and pretentious, but I've found that I'm often just as surprised by a story as the reader.  In fact, part of my problem in writing is that I want to hurry up to the end so I can find out what happens.

A lot of writers are drawn towards creating certain kinds of characters, and I'm no exception to this rule.  I find that I enjoy redemptive characters, those who struggle, fall, and have to find their way towards some kind of salvation.  Nearly all of my work is tailored this way, mostly because I believe in the power of the human spirit to overcome all its failings.  A good character, one that I really give a shit about, has frailty and is prone to the same temptations we all are.  I don't like the picture perfect hero, because that's someone I have trouble relating to.  But a person who may not always do the right thing even when they want to?  A person who has to search his or her soul to realize what their actions wrought and take corrective action to set right?  That's the kind of person I can almost always see myself getting behind.

Additionally, a hero is only as good as the villain, which is why one dimensional villains rarely work.  The prototypical evil man  who rubs his hands and laughs maniacally is rarely entertaining to someone over the age of eight.  Real bad guys are always more subtle, and they never themselves believe they're doing the wrong thing.  To top it off, they have genuine strength that must be a challenge to overcome or there's no tension in the story.  As with my protagonists, I have often been surprised by the depth of several villains I've written about, and the sides need to be just about even to be believable.

Harry Potter is a great book series, but Harry would be nothing without Voldemort.  Harry Turtledove writes awesome alternate history novels, but the story is advanced through the actions of great characters.  Even the new Star Wars novels, like Heir to the Empire, introduced the incredible Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Although all of these might have sold to hardcore audiences, the reason they were able to break out into the mainstream is that they had characters the audience wanted to read about.  Without great characters, the car stays in the driveway and rusts.

Next time - a sample chapter from Akeldama...

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