“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Yes, I'm going to talk about it. THAT book. You know the one. I wouldn't have read THAT book at all, not even out of curiosity, had I not received a late night phone call from Paris, yes THAT Paris, not long after THAT book hit the lists. Someone whose opinion I trusted told me I had to read THAT book. So, I did. And when I finished the first one I immediately downloaded the second one and then the third.
It took me a while to discern that as well. And it all boils down to CHARACTER. The books were not well-written. The author broke all sorts of rules. Now anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest fan of rules myself. But, if you're going to break them, especially as a debut author, you should at least pace yourself. This author did not. She used cliches like my brother uses barbecue sauce. She ran over the rules like a Crimson Tide defensive lineman through a Notre Dame offense. But the one thing she did that drew me in and would not let me go was this. She created a character I could not let go. I was at once fascinated by and repelled by Christian Grey. As I got to know him I wanted to know more. I began to feel for him, to root for him, and in the end I wanted to know he was going to be alright.
How do we go about creating characters so memorable, so mesmerizing that readers cannot bear to look away not even to sleep? I've been mulling this over for a bit and here are a few of my thoughts on character.
Speaking of breaking the rules, Loretta Chase started Lord of Scoundrels with a prologue in omniscient point of view - something THEY (whoever THEY are) tell us is a big no-no. But in this prologue we meet Dain, one of the most unique, rude, overbearing romance heroes ever written. We find out about his childhood, about the things that made him who he is and we hurt for the little boy and want the man to find love, after the heroine shoots him to get his attention, of course.
Give your characters a unique backstory. Make them interesting. Evoke a reaction in the reader. Introduce them in such a way the reader loves them, hates them, is intrigued by them, can't look away, wants to find out what makes them tick. You, as the author, know their entire life story. Not all of us are Loretta Chase. We can't present a character's entire life story at the beginning of the book, but we can sprinkle the bits that will grab the reader onto every page. Train wreck or abs from 300, make it something the reader simply cannot forget about the character. They will keep reading.
"Lucinda," she finally returned most cordially, "if I were to be marooned on a desert island for the remainder of my days and must needs choose between your company and that of an organ-grinder's flea-bitten monkey, I should not hesitate a moment before opting for the latter. If I could not be assured of intelligent conversation, at least I would not be subjected to your aping recitations that ceaselessly roam between the boundaries of the Land of Idiots and the Kingdom of Twits. Besides," she added glibly, "if pressed, at least I could eat the monkey."
From - The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane by Kasey Michaels
If you haven't read this book you are missing a real treat. Each and every character is an absolute gem of quirks, foibles and idiosyncratic mayhem. Just the quote above lets your know the speaker is a no-nonsense lady who refuses to mince words. Put your characters in situations everyone can relate to and then let them handle said situation in a way that makes the reader laugh out loud, cry, scratch their head or gasp in surprise. We all know how we would behave in any given situation (most of the time,) take the expected response and give it a twist. The reader will keep reading to see what said character is going to do next.
Any Southern woman who has read Lexi George's DEMON HUNTING IN DIXIE cannot help but relate to Addy Corwin in a BIG way! Are you kidding me? Southern belle, marriage or death Mama, witchy with a B enemies, eccentric relations and a brother with issues - not just Southern families, but all families have these. We can relate to Addy Corwin. We want to hang out with her. We want to see what she is going to say or do next. That's relatability.
We don't want to read about ourselves. We want to read about the people we might be if we lived in the worlds of Dain and Jessica or Addy and Brand. So as unique and quirky and glorious as the best characters are there has to be something that connects the reader to them, some common ground. We want to see ourselves as these characters or sometimes we imagine ourselves as the sidekick - you know, we go along for the ride with none of the danger and heartbreak. Take the relatablity and make it extraordinary. Or make the extraordinary relatable.
WALKING THE LINE
Now with all of that said, there is one more thing you might want to try to create characters that will live in a reader's mind long after they have read the last page. It's a tough one though. Anna Campbell's Regency Noir CLAIMING THE COURTESAN caused quite a stir when it debuted. The hero, Kylemore, is one of the most irredeemable men to pop up in romance for a long time. And frankly the heroine, Verity, is no peach either. They are both scarred, selfish, greedy, petulant and their relationship isn't a train wreck. It's the Hindenburg. But readers couldn't look away. They had to see how on earth these two people could be redeemed let alone end up happy together. Campbell walked that fine line and won. The book was nominated for a Rita. And it remains one of my favorite romance novels of all time.
This sort of characterization is risky. You have to walk a fine line between making the characters damaged and broken or completely irredeemable. It's a tough job. I can think of at least one much-touted romance novel (And no, I am not going to name names.) which, for me, did not succeed. By the end of the book the hero was redeemed in my eyes, but I was screaming at him "Run, buddy. You deserve better than her!" Not the way a romance should end.
SO, those are my thoughts on how to make unforgettable characters, the kind of people readers want to imagine themselves as, or hang out with, or cheer for. What about you? What ideas do you have for creating amazing characters? Do you think characters make the story or is it the other way around?