Picture this… You entered a fancy bakery and restaurant with the intention of ordering their best apple pie. But you noticed upon going to the washroom past the chef’s window that they were emptying cans of premade apple pie filling into the pastry. Would you quickly exit? (After first using their washroom of course…)
This disappointment would have been the same feeling I’d just experienced after investing money and time into a book with lame characters. A friend, who’d loved the novel, had suggested it. Yet after about two chapters, (I really gave it a try, since I’d spent over $14 on it) the characters’ lack of basic yearnings in life distanced me from caring about them. Now, I’m not talking about the desire to stay alive after the murderer is on the loose. I’m talking about inner yearnings before the plot even shifts into first gear: something that we as readers can identify with, and causes us to route immediately for that character.
The above apple pie was started with a canned, uninteresting product, so no matter what spices and other ingredients were added, the foundation was only going to be barely acceptable. (This B.C. girl is a connoisseur of apple pies) The same goes for the bland foundationless characters in the above-mentioned book who were merely reacting to events around them.* Snore *
An excellent book for writing fiction is A Writer’s Guide To Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon. She points out that plot alone sustains few stories. Our protagonists need a universal human need such as self-respect, identity, family unity, survival or belonging. Connect your characters to the past where that need was denied or made impossible and you’ve got someone we can care about. During the story’s plot this need should be fulfilled.
In The Hunger Games series, the Harry Potter series and of course my all-time favorite, Star Wars movies, the protagonists started off with definite yearnings that we could all identify with.
Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner for A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain discusses yearning:
“Yearning seems to be at the heart of what fiction as an art form is all about. It’s based on the fact that fiction is a temporal art form—it exists in time—and it’s also an art form about human beings and their feelings. Any Buddhist will tell you that as a human being on this planet, you can’t exist for even thirty seconds without desiring something. My favorite word is yearning because it suggests the deepest level of desire. My approach [to teaching writing] tries to get at essential qualities of process for the aspiring artist beyond what is inherent in the study of craft and technique. This notion of yearning has its reflection in one of the most fundamental craft points in fiction: plot. Because plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted.”
I LOVE his last comment! I’ll be quoting that a few more times, I’m sure…
So, I need first and foremost good characters who yearn for something, to pull me into a book.
What pulls you into stories the MOST? Plot? Characters? Setting? Perhaps a mixture of all three? (oh, and do you also like apple pie?)
I am intrigued by characters. Of course, the most complex and interesting characters can’t float in a vacuum so they need a plot. Setting is the icing on the cake. I can put cream cheese frosting on my favorite – spice cake, or I can use butter cream or lemon, but it still has the character of spice cake.
Oh, did I mention I’m a cake girl? Pies are a distant third (with cookies in second place.)
Yup, you are right. Characters, no matter how good they are need a good plot to react to! But in the beginning, the characters are what draw me in. And yes, a good spice cake, with crumble can match any apple pie!!
I am not an apple pie fan. 😦 I like an interesting premise and unique story line, but the best books are characters I know so well I can predict how they would act in any situation and when the story is over, I miss my new friends.
You didn’t grow up with apple pie likely!! I’ll forgive you…
I can grow to love characters too, but the ones that really get my attention are the ones that can also have contradictory aspects of their personality. Like the staff Sergeant who has training in ballet, or conversely the ballet dancer who becomes a staff sergeant! I love when the characters can surprise me too.
I’m willing to suffer through less-than-stellar writing if i like the characters and empathize with what they are going through. BTW, we live in blueberry country, and homemade bb pie in the summer is better than anything else 🙂
Empathy is a big thing with me and characters too. And I’ll admit to having read many books just to spend time with the characters, even though the premise leaves much to be desired. Blueberry pie is a luxury here. We pick them and give them out in smoothies a handful at a time.
I agree with Vanessa – one of my rare dnfs was a book where I despised the characters and I finally thought, “why am I reading this if I hate them and could care less what they go through?” I never thought about the yearning aspect but it makes good sense.
And I’m more of a pecan or pumpkin pie girl myself. 😉
So true Sparksofember! Along with the yearning for the yearning in a character, I just plain have to like them too. It’s like listening to a story told by a friend, where I’m totally there with them!
I wonder if I can go back and change my comment on apple pies. Pecan pies are the other favourite of mine. (along with spice cake with crumble on top, blueberry anything… rats, now I’m just hungry)
lol – Apple pie illustrated your point, though. How would they make pecan pie out of a can? 😉 (unless you caught them baking a frozen pie they bought at the grocery store!)
we are pie lovers at my house! Just made a butterscotch and a peanut butter pie for my husband’s birthday today!
I like voicey characters that I care about and find myself rooting for early in the story. I do not tolerate poor writing very well, but will skim through something poorly written to see how the characters fare.
Hmmmm… butterscotch and peanut butter. Sounds fantastic. Cant’ say I’ve ever had that! (I’m game though)
Rarely do you find writing that has good characters and bad writing. I feel both hohum characters and bad writing come hand in had. And the converse I find is