Two of the books I’m reading now have got me thinking a lot about characterization, what works for me, and what doesn’t. I’m a character-driven reader; I’ll follow a story with the thinnest of plots if it has characters and a voice I can get behind. But even the most intricate plots and fascinating fantasy worlds can be vastly improved upon by well-developed characters.
For example, one book I’m reading has a whimsical fantasy setting and an intriguing plot, but I’m really struggling with some of the characters. (Note, I don’t post the titles of books I critique on this blog unless the book contains problematic content, such as cultural appropriation, harmful stereotypes, misrepresentation, etc. If a book just didn’t work for me, I don’t like to call the author out.) The romance at the center of this book is a forbidden love — the main character is being courted by the king, but she has feelings for someone else. I’m fine with the main character not being attracted to the king, but I feel this book would be much stronger if the king were a character who readers saw as someone people could be attracted to. As it is, the king feels like someone we’re meant to laugh at and dismiss. (And side note, I’m more than half-way through the book and have seen him do zero ruling/governing. A monster has attacked and killed some of his subjects, yet all he seems to worry about is writing bad poetry to woo our main character.) This story would benefit so much from having the king be an attractive prospect for more reasons than the vague “but he’s the king” all of the secondary characters keep repeating. The main character doesn’t have to love the king, but the king should be someone we could reasonably see a different person falling in love with.
On the other hand, for an example of characters done really well, I highly recommend Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. This fantasy heist is told by an ensemble cast who all have their own reasons for wanting to pull off this job. Each has their own history, their own motivations, their own relationships with and opinions about the other members of their team. The characters’ backstories are all so fascinating, I feel like each of them could have their own book that takes place before Six of Crows, and I would read every one of those books.
Having characters this rich allows them to drive the plot in really interesting ways. Readers aren’t simply left wondering whether our heroes will pull this off; they’re also left wondering which of our heroes will get the outcome they want. The crew may all be trying to get something, but they want it for different reasons, and they don’t agree on what they should do with it. The characters bring their own tension and complexity that both enhance and drive the story.
What have I learned from all this? Don’t be lazy in your characterization. Remember, every character has their own story, whether it’s the story you’re telling or not. Your main character’s best friend has their own interests, their own motivations, and their own way of looking at the world. Your antagonist is the hero of their story. Fully-developed characters can enrich your story in so many ways.
Have you read anything with really great characters lately?