Characters Without Flaw

Notorious Atherton by Patricia RiceWriting is not for the faint of heart… or the lazy.

I realize the public thinks of authors as desk jockeys who stare out their windows all day until a burst of genius has them rattling their keyboards. All right, so yeah, that happens. But that’s the easy part.

Maybe some authors rattle their keyboards and produce perfect prose and indelible characters and a page-turning pace setter. I’m not one of them. Actually, my bursts of genius are so slow that I tend to sit in the sun like a cat and scribble down rough drafts with pen and ink. There’s something about rocking, sun, and the pen scratching across the page that stimulates my subconscious.

But what ends up on the page is barely a sketch of the action. I used to be really bad and simply tell the story of what happens. Now, I at least include dialogue in the draft. But that’s still not a real book.

That was impressed on me recently when I decided to write a novella prequel to my Mystic Isle historical fantasy romance series. I had a brilliant notion for a foundation story, full of world-building and action. I got half way through that draft before I realized my  characters were dead in the water. I should have let the earthquake kill them or the tsunami drown them. At least they would have been more sympathetic.

What I failed to do was develop those cardboard cutouts into people, people with hopes and dreams, fears, desires, and flaws. Sure, my charming, obedient people did precisely what the story called for them to do, but who cares if they save the day if they’re more interesting dead? Since killing the protagonists in a romance is frowned upon, that isn’t an option.

I hadn’t fully realized how much of my work operates on character. The protagonists are generally the air beneath my wings, the driving force that keeps the story flowing. This time, I started with concept and plot and neglected the characters. Never again!

So that story is on hold until I figure out who these ancient people are and what makes them tick. And then when I throw a tsunami at them, maybe I’ll care enough to finish their tale.

Have you read any books where the action is great, but the characters were placeholders? Did you enjoy the story anyway?






Characters Without Flaw — 8 Comments

  1. A lot of thriller authors are like that, actually. Plot and action are the focus of the thriller, and sometimes the characters just follow the plot around. Most of the writers have some characterization skills, even if they’re not very good. The worst I read had zero characterization. It was a thriller set during World War II, and it had three characters with three story lines. The characters were so badly characterized that I could not differentiate who was who. It was if the writer had a checklist: Name? Check. Flaw? Check. Done.

  2. A great example might be RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula. The heart of the work is the setting: Rama. The characters are cardboard, existing solely to explore Rama. The plot is exploring Rama, period. However, Clarke chose rightly. Rama itself is sufficiently cool to sustain it all; the novel is perfectly successful and a classic of the genre.
    I use RAMA to bolster my theory that each genre has its core focus. In SF&F setting is very important; works like RAMA or for that matter LOTR show you how important worldbuilding is. Mystery and thriller, as Linda points out, are ruled by plot. You can get away with nearly anything as long as the plot makes sense and moves along. Romance, OTOH, is the realm of character. If the characters do not convincingly fall in love there is no romance.

    • Granted, each genre has its own focus. And it could be argued that RAMA is the character we care about. But it could just be that I need an emotional focus in my reading beyond the intellectual focus. There are way too many books out there and too little time, so I want the books I read to have it ALL.

      I think even my nonfiction needs to have a human interest these days. My tolerance level is slipping.

      • This is so true. A pure travelogue, like a pure war account or an unadulterated political story, is dull. It is the people who bring it to life, the grunts in the trenches or the old woman selling peaches at the bus stop or the binders full of women.

  3. The questions “Who would do all this?” and “What sort of person would find all this deeply meaningful?” are useful.

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