I need to keep reminding myself about characters. Because I almost fell into this trap working on the notes for the sixth Jack Commer novel, Commer of the Rebellion. Boy, I really was straining for a dazzling plot, but it was just months of frustrating mush until some characters stepped forward to remind me why I wanted this novel in the first place.
Thus the following is a note to myself, not intended as hoary advice from some pro to the novice:
Characters are everything as you should know by now. You lose sight of what’s real whenever you’re trying to figure out how to make the plot work. Trying to force your characters into some enthralling plot designed to wow the reader is a disaster. The problem is that the mind-blowing plot, reduced to a one-sentence elevator pitch, is ideal for marketing purposes. In fact, I’ve bought novels on the basis of the fascinating one-sentence blurb only to gag at the artlessness of characterization within the book.
Never tout your own fiction as “character driven” or as part of some “new literary science fiction” trend–we’ve heard that one for decades anyway. Don’t even write a review of someone else’s book in that regard. If you have to say that, you’re just trying to hoodwink people into believing you’re some master of characterization, or your reviewed author is. Make your fiction demonstrate that your characters are primary; let the potential reader determine what these characters are from a sample chapter or (as must sometime regrettably happen) from your marketing. As for reviews, if an author does a particularly great job with his or her characters, you can certainly praise that skill without resorting to vapid cheerleading.
And in any case, who’s really a “master of characterization” when starting a new novel? It’s all an experiment, it’s exploration of the unknown, and you can’t tell in advance what these inner archetypes will say or how well you’ll be able to take the dictation.
Yes, I’ve been guilty of saying “My novels are character-driven.” I think almost everyone pays lip service to this concept. And while I’ve understood deep down that characters are primary, I’ve all too frequently tried to first create a plot that would ideally mix characters into some high energy event matrix “the way I want them to.” But that’s not giving them free enough rein. Concerns about the plot, including the ending before you’ve gotten there, inhibit the flow of the raw people investigation any novel demands.
Bottom line: you shouldn’t have to say that your characters have depth. They just better self-evidently flow or else you don’t have a novel. The challenge is not how you can finagle some entertaining characters, because there’s no standard classroom method, no tricks for gussying them up so you can fool yourself and your reader. Characters are totally dependent on how honest you are with yourself. Boasting about your characters is simply authorial anxiety, of which there’s a lot floating around.
Copyright 2014 Michael D. Smith