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?)