Well-crafted characters - why they're essential to a novel
Today I'd like to look at what traits readers love in a character. As well as what they hate! My reason? I've just finished reading a book that's garnered high praise from literary pundits, but which failed to impress me. The main reason was the characters - totally flat and unbelievable, very one-dimensional. The protagonist was cold, unfeeling, dismissive of her parents because they lacked money. Yet the author wanted me to believe this person was also capable of a great, undying love. By that time I'd given up caring about her, repelled by her personality. The other characters were no better. To make matters worse, the plot lacked depth and cohesion, along with an unsatisfactory ending.
Crafting great characters is one of the hardest challenges authors face. The storyline might be intriguing, the narrative well written, yet if readers don't identify with the main characters, then the book is unlikely to entertain them. Or even hold their interest past the first few chapters.
So what makes a great character?
Hannibal Lecter, from Thomas Harris's novel The Silence of the Lambs, springs to mind. This is no cardboard cut-out antagonist, but a complex individual who captures the reader's imagination, partly because he presents two such different sides to his personality. On the one hand, he is cultured, well educated, a former Baltimore forensic psychiatrist. He is knowledgeable about art, literature and cuisine. Yet he is also a psychopathic and cannibalistic serial killer. Quite a juxtaposition, isn't it? And that's what makes Lecter such a compelling personality. He'd make a great dinner guest – provided he didn't eat you!
What follows are my thoughts on what makes a great character. First, they need to arouse empathy in a reader. I don't necessarily have to like them, but I do need to be on their side, eager for them to overcome their demons by the end of the story.
They should also be interesting. I don't want to read about someone who works in a mundane job, has no friends and holds no opinions. That's boring, and in real life we shy away from dull individuals. Instead, I like characters to have fire in their bellies, to laugh, to cry, to experience pain and joy and all the emotions that come attached to this crazy life we're living.
Treat 'em mean...
One piece of advice that's often dished out to writers is to torture their characters... and then torture them some more. Wise words, in my opinion! By forcing them to endure angst, loss, loneliness, an author makes them real, because sorrow and tragedy happen to us all. In addition, how a character faces life's trials helps to shape their personalities, meaning that by the end of their novel, they've changed - and for the better. An example is Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars franchise, who morphs from a humble farm boy to a great Jedi warrior.
I love it when a character aspires to become a better person, often as a result of pain they've suffered in the past. Sometimes they're the underdog in a novel, a plot device that helps the reader to root for them. Underdogs are called to rise to challenges that will shape their personalities; a notable example is Harry Potter from J K Rowlings' books. Once a mistreated boy forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs, he eventually becomes an accomplished wizard despite facing adversaries such as Draco Malfoy and Lord Voldemort. Speaking of which, antagonists in a novel need to be worthy of the title of villain. Make them dark, make them twisted, make the reader loathe them, yet be fascinated by them. Hannibal Lecter again!
To be well-rounded, a characters needs to have flaws, because who doesn't? I don't want to read about someone who's always calm, patient, reliable, consistent - such people don't exist. We're all imperfect, changeable, difficult at times - some of us all the time! This leads me on the my last point - characters need to be believable. Don't give me street thugs who never swear, teenagers who don't act out, couples who never argue. I want reality, in all its ugly glory, because that's what shapes an great read. And I suspect other readers do too.
What do you think?
Are there any points you can add? What do you like or loathe in a character? Leave a comment and let me know!
A dark, twisted psychological thriller
This week's post is a review of 'The Surrogate' by Louise Jensen. A dark, twisted psychological thriller that never fails to entertain, it's the first novel by this author that I've read, but it won't be the last. Here's the Amazon blurb:
She can give you everything you want... But can you trust her?
Kat and her husband Nick have tried everything to become parents. All they want is a child to love but they are beginning to lose hope. Then a chance encounter with Kat’s childhood friend Lisa gives them one last chance.
Kat and Lisa were once as close as sisters. The secrets they share mean their trust is for life... Or is it?
Just when the couple’s dream seems within reach, Kat begins to suspect she’s being watched and Nick is telling her lies.
Are the cracks appearing in Kat’s perfect picture of the future all in her head, or should she be scared for the lives of herself and her family?
How far would you go, to protect everything you love?
Fast pace and intriguing plot
Wow! Sounds good, doesn't it? I read 'The Surrogate' in one sitting, drawn in by its fast pace and intriguing plot, and the twist at the end came as a shock. The narrative switches between past and present, from hope to despair, but always entertains. If I had to level any criticism at this book, it would be concerning the plot; without wishing to give spoilers, I thought it a little implausible at times. I also found the last few paragraphs jarred; I wasn't convinced Kat would behave that way, not given her current circumstances. These are minor points, however, that didn't detract from my enjoyment of this novel.
At the start of the book, Kat is a happily married woman whose life only requires one thing to make it complete: a baby. However, both she and her husband Nick harbour secrets, ones that threaten to derail their relationship. Kat's skeleton in the closet is dark, serving to drive a wedge between her and her best friend, Lisa. Nick's, however, is even darker, mirrored by his damaged family history. Lisa, too, isn't all she seems. At first money and revenge appear to be her reasons for being a surrogate, but as Kat increasingly appears unreliable as a narrator, Lisa's true motives still aren't clear. Until the truth is revealed, leading to a wow! of an ending.
This novel is twisted, dark and menacing, with a climax that some readers will love and others, like myself, will question. It embraces themes of revenge, forgiveness, love and parenthood, set against a backdrop of intrigue. You can find out more about Louise and her novels via her website, www.louisejensen.co.uk.
Let's hear from you!
Have you read 'The Surrogate'? Did you like or loathe it? What about the ending? Leave a comment and let me know!
This week I'm interviewing the lovely Sibel Hodge, a best-selling novelist who writes in a range of genres, including crime and thriller fiction. Welcome to my blog, Sibel!
I’d like to know more about your latest novel. What can readers expect to encounter in its pages?
I love books told in an original way so I decided to write 'Anatomy of a Crime' in the format of a true crime podcast that I fell in love with listening to a few years ago. It's a twisty psychological-style thriller that leads readers on a dark, unpredictable journey...
On the summer solstice in 2017, two girls walk into Blackleaf Forest.
Only one comes out alive.
Dubbed as the Sleeping Beauty Killer, and surrounded by rumours of witchcraft, Caris Kelly is sentenced to life in prison for murdering her best friend during a ritualistic thrill kill.
Although Caris insists she is innocent, no one believes her.
Then three years later, investigative journalist Lauren Taylor looks into the murder for her true crime podcast. She becomes convinced there's more to the flimsy witness testimony, sinister coincidences, and sensational press coverage and probes into the case. As prejudices are revealed, lies are uncovered, and secrets are blown wide open, a single question remains... is there really one truth about what happened that night? Or are there only different versions of the same story?
Tell us about yourself and what you get up to when you’re not writing.
When I'm not writing I usually spend a long time researching for the next novel! I also read 2-3 books a week. In my spare time you'll find me exercising, spending as much time in nature as I can, catching up with friends, and cooking.
What have you written to date?
I've written ten thrillers, three romantic comedies, seven cozy mysteries, one contemporary romance, one young adult novel, one children's novel, two novellas, and three non-fiction, including two vegan cookbooks. I'm a hybrid author, published both traditionally and independently.
When I first started writing I concentrated on romantic comedies and comedy/cozy mysteries that were a great fit for me at the time. But as my writing journey progressed, so did my life journey, and I wanted to start tackling darker subjects I could give a voice to as a writer that I felt weren't getting the mainstream attention they deserved. The first serious book I wrote in the crime genre was a novella about sex trafficking, and since then I've written multiple thrillers about many different types of trafficking, from exotic animals to organ trafficking, child and labour trafficking, and trafficking for ritual abuse.
Do you have a special time to write? A writing routine? Do you work to an outline or plot?
I'm very focused, so when I'm working on a first draft I get up about 6ish and then do some yoga and meditation before I start writing. I aim for 3000-5000 words per day. The first draft will usually take 3-4 weeks.
As for plotting, I'm a total pantster! I know the underlying theme of a novel when I start writing, and most of my thrillers involve a lot of research that I have to condense into something readable, but I have no idea what's going to happen until I start writing. I let my characters lead the way.
Where do your ideas come from?
I like to write what I call true fiction. A lot of the novels I've written in the last ten years are inspired by real life events. I'm very passionate about animal and human rights and want to give a voice to darker subjects to raise awareness, particularly in tackling corruption, conspiracy, and women's issues.
What book are you reading at present?
'Virus Mania' by Torsten Engelbrecht and Köhnlein Claus.
Do you proofread/edit your own books or do you get someone else to do it?
My hubby is my chief beta reader, which is great because he's not a reader so he'll point out a lot of things that I'm too close to see. If I'm indie publishing a book I'll send it out to a few more beta readers to get their helpful feedback. Then they all go to be professionally edited and proofread.
Do you think the cover plays an important part of the buying process?
Absolutely. And although I can't use a cover design program, I'll always have a clear idea in my head of how I want the cover to look so I can give as much visual instruction to the designer as possible.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I always get an idea in my head that fits a name to a personality type of the character I want. It's also a bonus to have the names of main characters as short as possible so it's less typing!
What kind of research do you do?
I do masses of research that sometimes spans years because I'm writing about real life events that I want to make as authentic as possible. I collate information from a huge range of sources from alternative news/mainstream media/investigative journalism/books/government agencies and reports/victims' accounts/documentaries.
What is the first book to make you cry?
'Go Ask Alice' by Anonymous. I read it when I was about ten and it really stuck with me.
What is the hardest/easiest thing about writing a book?
The hardest? Collating and condensing the amount of research into something that weaves into the story seamlessly.
The easiest? My books are very character driven, and I love getting inside my characters' heads. One of the things I find easy is expressing the psychology of their thoughts, actions, emotions, and personality. I think being an author is a lot like being an actor, but you have to wear all the characters' skins, not just one.
Thanks, Sibel, for a great interview!
You can find out moe about Sibel and her novels via her website, www.sibelhodge.com/
Author burnout - an occupational hazard?
Some of you already know that I've struggled to find my writing mojo in 2020. All was well until February, when I suddenly found I couldn't summon up the desire to write. The coronavirus restrictions hadn't yet come into force, so that wasn't the reason. Instead I believe I was experiencing a minor case of burnout.
I'm quite a driven individual and over the last two decades I've pushed myself hard in various ways. They include extensive travel (always a joy), moving three hundred miles away, leaving my accountancy career, operating a dog walking business before becoming a full-time novelist, achieving other important goals, etc. It's all been great fun and I have no regrets. But inside me, things were changing.
I began to experience a strong urge to slow my life down. The thought of waking up to my alarm clock didn't appeal (did it ever?) I yearned to do more than just write. I wanted to spend time with friends, make new ones, exercise more, improve my Spanish, etc. The pressure authors experience to pump out books filled me with dread. I wanted to write for love, not because I was on a production schedule. To my horror, I realised I no longer wanted to write. Anything. At all. I'd published seven novels as well as a novella and a non-fiction book. Perhaps I'd taken my writing as far as it was meant to go?
This wasn't a case of writer's block. I didn't sit in front of a blank screen, desperate to conjure up words. Instead I avoided writing all together, despite having completed a good chunk of my eighth novel. I told myself my writing mojo would soon bounce back. It didn't.
Unsure how to proceed, I turned to my author friends for help. To my surprise, they'd either gone through, or were currently experiencing, the same dilemma. Here are some of their comments:
I'm having the same doubts as to whether to continue writing, whether its worth the backlash and all the intense hard work.
I too want to try to take my writing to the next level, but am plagued by doubts.
I had an email from an author friend saying exactly the same thing, and that he was on the verge of quitting.
Phew! At least I knew I wasn't alone in this. I was also lucky enough to have a wonderful accountability partner. We check in with each other about our writing goals each Sunday via Skype and midweek via email. During this difficult time he was a huge source of support and encouragement, even when weeks turned into months and I still hadn't written anything.
How is my writing going now?
I'm pleased to report that, while I'm by no means out of the writing doldrums, things have improved significantly. What's changed? Two things. First, I asked myself whether, given that I'd dreamed of being a novelist for decades, it was likely I'd lost my writing mojo forever. Was this just a blip instead? The answers came back: no, and probably. Second, my writing buddy suggested I write a few words on my novel and see where it took me. I agreed, and committed to doing 1,000 new words the following week. And I did. The next week I managed 5,000 and the one after that, 6000. It's a way off the 2,000+ words I used to write daily before my 'blip', but I'm not worried. I'm writing again, and so far I've added over 24,000 new words to my eighth novel. At times I've even felt flashes of my old drive and energy, which is wonderful.
My aim is to complete the novel and get it to my editor/beta readers by Christmas. I'll keep you posted! Thanks for reading.