If you ask a hundred bookworms to identify the most essential ingredient for a must read book, there’s almost no chance you would get unanimous agreement. All readers have differing sentiments that affect what they want and enjoy most in a work of fiction. For many readers there will be one specific box that absolutely needs to be checked in order for a book to be essential reading. For some, pacing is the priority, for others it’s writing style, for some it’s originality, while for others it might be thought-provoking themes and ideas. I’m not going to attempt to provide a definitive answer because there isn’t one. But I will give you my thoughts on what I consider to be the most important constituent of a good story, the absence of which always detracts from my reading pleasure.
Although it wasn’t always the case, as a reader the one facet of a story I value most is strong characterisation. Most fiction is invariably about characters, so the more compelling the characters the greater my interest in the story being told about them. After all, why would I want to read stories about people who don’t interest me in the slightest? I don’t expect perfection in a book, but it’s often the case that I’m willing to overlook (to some degree) deficiencies in all other areas of a narrative if the author succeeds in creating characters who intrigue me. And by the same token I find it difficult to forgive the absence of strong characterisation in a book, even if every other aspect of the story is done well.
Naturally enough, my appreciation for strong characterisation in what I read has significantly influenced my own writing. When conceiving a story, it’s the characters I devote the most time and thought to developing. I won’t even begin writing until I feel I have a firm grasp and understanding of the main characters, whereas things such as world building I’m content to just make up as I go. I am strongly of the opinion that developing characters to the point where they seem to take on a life of their own makes it so much easier to write them and their stories. The deeper the insights I have into a character’s personality and quirks, upbringing and history, hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, motivations and objectives etc., the less thought I have to put into how they will react to situations I put them in, and how they will interact with other characters; the characters themselves will let me know.
While I don’t feel as though I have earned the right yet to offer advice to aspiring authors, if asked for my opinion I would encourage all would-be authors to really get to know their characters as intimately as possible before beginning a first draft of a new work in progress. I consider this a crucial first step to achieving strong characterisation in a story.
An obvious question that follows on from the above is what makes a character compelling? Again, there isn’t really a definitive answer that can be given. To offer my own opinion, first and foremost a compelling character is one depicted in a believable way, and feels like a real person to the reader. What constitutes believable and real will vary from one person to another. Speaking for myself, as both a reader and a writer, I am intrigued by ambiguous characters; I find it hard to invest in characters who are depicted in black or white terms. As a proponent of “greyscale morality” in fiction, I am really drawn to flawed characters who are just as capable of immoral decisions and actions as they are of making moral ones. I’m especially fascinated by conflicted characters who struggle with the inner turmoil of competing emotions, desires and impulses. I find it very easy to relate to and understand such characters which is why they seem more real to me.
In hindsight, when I think about the book responsible for kindling my love of reading and writing (The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe), I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Edmund Pevensie is the character I’ve always found most intriguing. He is the one genuinely compelling character of the story because he is not depicted in black or white terms. I actually really like the fact he effectively sells out his siblings for nothing more than some Turkish Delight. Sure, it’s a despicable thing to do, but such petty action by a young kid toward his siblings is so believable, making his character more real.
For any aspiring authors wanting to improve the strength of characterisation in their work, there is one creative writing guide above all others I would highly recommend reading. Characters And Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card is essential reading for any writer wanting to learn how to create truly compelling characters. It’s an in depth, well structured guide that will really make you think more comprehensively about your characters.
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Characters And Viewpoint
(Elements Of Writing Fiction Series)
Orson Scott Card
Genre: Reference, Writing Skills
Publisher: Writer’s Digest
Format: Paperback, 240 Pages
Date: 18th January 2011 (First Published 1988)
Thanks for reading,