Monday, February 1, 2010

My, What Nice, Rounded Characters You Have, Grandma!

I’ve been reading. A lot. I tend to go in spurts and not read much for a while, then gorge myself while I’m between projects. And I’ve got a confession.

I’m a vicious reader.

No, really. That’s why I almost never give my opinion on books on this blog. I just don’t like many of them. And it’s not that I hate them—there are very few books that I really hate—I simply don’t love them, and so see no reason to talk about it. So it’s a bit of a contradiction, because while I love, love, LOVE reading, there aren’t many books that I love.

There’s a troubling trend I’ve been seeing in many of the books I’ve been reading lately. Even though they’re written with a first person narrator, I never feel like I really know the MC. Too many of them seem like carbon copies of each other, bland vehicles through which the story is told. Things happen to them and around them, but the heroine never becomes a person. She’s just the story.

A lot of writers try to get around this by giving their heroine something to “set her apart.” So, let’s say my hero, Mary Sue, is moderately pretty, hasn’t ever dated much, and is hot hot hot for her Yeti next-door-neighbor, even though their love is fated never to work and he’ll probably kill her and even if he doesn’t it’s probably going to trigger a yeti apocalypse but oh-my-goodness those hairy, hairy kisses fill her with the fire of a thousand raging hot-dog roasts.

I don’t want Mary Sue to read like every other first-person-paranormal-YA-star-crossed/species-crossed-lovers novel out there. I know! Let’s make her narcoleptic. Yes! That’s perfect! Only instead of showing the reader what it means to be narcoleptic, and having her actually deal with her narcolepsy, I’ll just have other characters mention it at strategic points throughout the novel.

“Oh, that Mary Sue! If only she weren’t narcoleptic.”

“You think you’re so special, just because you’re narcoleptic!”

“Mary Sue, honestly! You and that crazy narcolepsy…”

Because if other characters say it, that makes it true, and I don’t have to worry about character development. And if she never actually does anything even remotely connected to being a narcoleptic in the novel, well, it doesn’t matter, because if other characters say it, then it’s true. And Mary Sue is DIFFERENT!

Rock on. Now she can function solely to be the recipient of sweet, sweet Yeti love.

Of course, that example is silly and slightly off, because narcolepsy is a condition and not a personality trait like, say, having an explosive temper, or being incredibly stubborn, or having an irrational affection for cupcakes. (But really, is there such a thing as an irrational affection for those sweet, sugary confections? I think not.)

In the end, none of these heroines are terrible, and the books aren’t bad (many of them are quite fun), but I never feel like I know who the narrator is. She never becomes real to me.

In stark contrast to that is a book I read this weekend: WAKE by Lisa McMann. Even though it’s written in third-person, I felt like I understood Janie, the main character, better than many of the first-person main character narrators I’ve read recently. While not all of Janie’s character traits were desirable, they all rang true. There was never anything in the novel that gave me pause, nothing that contradicted the person that McMann created. This wasn’t to say she didn’t grow and change over the course of the narrative, but everything fit. Janie was a complete character, and we didn’t need inserts of dialogue for other characters to explain to us what made her unique. She already was.

In the end I don’t know why some characters speak to me and others don’t. But I do know that your characters need to be people, and not just vehicles through which the story is told. Now if you’ll excuse me, Mary Sue is about to find out that the International Confederation of Really Irate Yetis has put a price on her head. And they’re talking about how she’s narcoleptic.

Tomorrow: I'll attempt to give some advice on this topic. And may very well fail miserably! Oh, the suspense.

***NOTE: If you want to discuss this in the comments, yay!, but please only use authors/books by name if you are giving them as an example of exemplary awesomeness. My Mary Sue is probably another person’s favorite character, and I have a strict policy against author-bashing. Writing is hard. Tastes vary. That’s all there is to it.***


Megs said...

So true! Even though I am not technically a writer, I also am an avid reader; and from that perspective, I think having *real* characters is one of the hardest parts about storytelling!

Megs said...

(P.S. Just thought I'd let you know of the typo (if you haven't caught it already; I know how you hate those ;)) - "Because of other characters say it, that makes it true...")

Lindsey Himmler said...

I'm just now getting around to reading the Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I love his work so much, but I'm realizing how amazing he is at creating villains! The MCs are fine characters as well, but the villains are so deliciously creepy (The baddies in Neverwhere are the winners of my all-time favorite creeps).

Julie said...

I loved WAKE. I loved FADE. And I'm so excited that GONE comes out next week. And I completely agree with how wonderfully Ms. McMann created Janie.

It's funny. I've had the opposite reading experience. I read a ton and love most. I think when I disappear into fiction, I'm just too happy to be very discriminating... or I just mentally fill in all the wholes that trouble other readers. :)

Great post!

Kiersten White said...

Ha! Yes, indeed, Megs : ) Thanks!

Lindsey--So true.

Falen said...

Do you ever consider reading other genres? I used to have a problem with finding books i loved, then i switched genres and voila - so many wonderful lovely books. It turns out i was just reading the wrong books for my tastes

Kiersten White said...

Julie--I think I've just edited too much.

Falen--I do actually read pretty widely. But I try to read as much YA paranormal as I can while not reading to see what I think works and what doesn't. Research : ) Also, FUN.

Tere Kirkland said...

LOL, no love of cupcakes is irrational.

And I'm with you, there have been quite a few books lately where the 1st person pov is not working so much to get me into the mc's head. It's like I'm listening to someone I don't really like telling me a story.

I'm trying to make my heroines proactive. I'm hoping this will be the next trend in YA lit, especially with a third helping of Katniss Everdeen to help it along.

Andrea Cremer said...

I have the same issues with character development (or lack of it) in so much that I read. I keep hearing great things about Lisa McCann's work - this post has just pushed me to the point of no return must buy now.

Kristan said...

YAY! Wake is on my To Read SOON list! (Along with Hunger Games and Hush Hush!) Now I'm even more excited.

Also, excited to write. Because I want to create round characters that people like you (or you specifically!) will actually enjoy. :D

Thanks for the inspiration as ever, Kiersten!

(Also also, is it September yet?!) (Also also also, come to Cincinnati for your book tour! So I can kidnap you for the evening! I mean... get my book signed. :P)

Geoff said...

That's always been my biggest problem with first person. Unless you are an insanely interesting "someone", no one really wants to be inside your head that much. And in MY head, I don't constantly talk about my strengths and flaws. Therefor, if I were in a story, everyone else would get to do it for me. It's kind of a wacky system and not all that believable if you ask me.

I tend to enjoy a very knowledgeable, objective, and omnipotent voice to guide me through the story, someone who knows everything and chooses when to tell the reader and the characters about it. But that's sort of how I write, so I'm probably partial to it when I read!

Renee Collins said...

I think that because first person is so "hot" with YA, a lot of writers use it, even if it isn't right for the story.

P.S. I snickered when I read the title of this post. Does that mean I have a dirty mind? ;)

Daisy Whitney said...

Totally agree. Grafting on a quirk is just that -- grafting. Characters, duh, should be real.

Nicole said...

When I'm developing my MC, I use the life interview questions in Robert Atkinson's The Gift of Stories.

The book is a text on personal mythmaking, life stories, and autobiography. The life interview questions are a great resource for character development. If you want to know everything about your characters, that's the way to do it. That's how I found out that the MC in one of my projects was born in the same bed as his sister, mother, and grandmother, and his sister will give birth in that same bed.

Anna said...

I know exactly what you mean! I got about halfway through a book a while back before I had to put it down because it was making me crazy. One of the characters was described as impulsive over and over, but he never actually DID anything impulsive. I couldn't figure out if we were being set up for him to do something impulsive later on, or if it was just an easy way of making his character seem more real. Either way, I didn't get to the end to find out...

inthewritemind said...

Very true.

I'm attempting to write in first person for my current WiP but it's coming across as cardboard-ish. I've been told that this same chapter in third person works...and I'm still trying to decide which way I should go :P So I look forward to reading your post tomorrow! (Although I look forward to reading your posts every day :P)

Liz Czukas said...

Well, first of all, I applaud your dedication to the Yeti.

Second, I think the only love more pure than the love between a girl and her cupcakes is the love before THIS girl and cookies. But, that's hardly the point.

I'm on the edge of my seat to find out your advice on this subject, because I would very much like to send well-rounded characters out in the world.

If you want to take on a saga absolutely stuffed to the gills with complex, round, amazing characters, I would recommend The President's Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White. Meg and her family will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Thanks for the Monday morning smile.


Myrna Foster said...

Okay, it took me until the end of the post to catch the Mary Sue reference. Very Clever.

I've been having the same problem with YA for the last year or so, but I'm still loving the children's section. I feel like YA is closing the gap between teenage and adult.

Kiersten White said...

RAWR!! I hate it when my own comments get lost.


Geoff--Clearly you are not a woman : ) Of course, my first tip-off was the facial hair.

Renee--Yes, yes it does mean that. But it's part of why I love you.

Kristan--No idea where I'll go, but I'll keep you posted.

Everyone--Thanks for the reading/writing tips! Hopefully I'll be helpful tomorrow. I'm always hesitant to give writing advice.

Bethany Mason said...

I'm exactly the same - I read in cycles and I absolutely love reading, but I don't love that many books - while I can remember most with a little jog, there are very few that cement themselves into my mind. I had never really thought about why this is but after this post I'm going to start paying attention to what isn't working and why.

Marsha Sigman said...

I read in spurts as well. With limited spare time, I have to choose between reading or writing. So sometimes I take a week off to catch up on the reading.
I've been disappointed as well but I won't say what book it was because I would rather not say anything than hurt someone's feelings. I hope that my MC comes across as a real person. She is to me. This is a great post and I cannot wait for the advice tomorrow!!!

EA Hirsch said...

I've noticed myself doing this, actually. Not so much the grafting on of odd traits, but the creation on a story vehicle, instead of a real character. It's something I've been focusing on explicitly the last six months or so, and I dare say I've improved.

Also, reading in fits and gasps happens to me as well, though the cycles are usually quicker. For weeks my 'library shelf' will be empty, and then I will surprise my husband by coming home with a dozen books, and he won't see me again for a while. "Can't talk. Refueling."

Abby Stevens said...

I, too, seem to read in batches. Feast or famine.

Offhand, two authors I can think of who do characterization well are JK Rowling and Margaret Mitchell.

JK Rowling gets the wrap for less than stellar writing, but her characters are as round as you can get. No one is fully good or bad, everyone has degrees of both in them. Harry's not perfect - he has a temper and falls for the wrong girl and gets confused and takes cheap shots at his nemesis.

Another book with very dynamic characterization is Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is a total and complete witch and yet she is passionate and dutiful and loving. Rhett is a scoundrel and yet totally, irrevocably in love with Scarlett. The list goes on... I find there are tons of books with amazing characterization in them.

I don't mind flatter characters, either, but they better be doing something fantastic plot-wise to hold my attention.

Mariah Irvin said...

You're reading my mind, Kiersten. I was just discussing this issue with somebody earlier today. Also, I have an irrational affection for cupcakes.

Anita Saxena said...

I feel the same way about a lot of YA books. That's why I am very picky about what I read. And since I don't get much time to read, I want to make sure it's going to be GOOD. I usually read books that are recommended OR from authors I already know.

Kelly Bryson said...

I totally agree with this post- love to read, lukewarm about most books.

Wake was a good one. I recommend the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The MC in that book is so consistent and unique. Loved it and the sequel.

I'm reading 'Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel' by Suzanne Clark right now. It about two wizards trying to save England during the napoleonic war and is similar in style to Jane Austen. Very very clever. It's long- I think 700 pages and I'm about 200 in, so I don't know about the rest of it, but recommendable thus far. Mr. Norrel is shown to be a very stubborn and prideful man, though no one ever calls him that;)

lora96 said...

Shimmering example: "Kenya" in Run by Ann Patchett. She is lonely, brave, talented, strong, smart, compassionate, curious. Her character just kindled a spark, was fully engaging to me, my husband, and my 89 year old grandma when we read the book on three seperate occasions and each commented, "Wow that Kenya was such a great character!" And guess what, guys, she was NOT even the MC! That Ann Patchett just gets the nuances and the personality traits for every teensy supporting character perfect.

lora96 said...

Also I totally agree. I am a terribly critical reader. I can enjoy a book, love love LOVE to read, in fact. But I have this hypercritical bent in my mind (which my husband calls "whining about the book") in which I either skewer the author for unrealistic and/or weak female characters or nitpick the tar out of his/her split infinitives and misused words.

I'm a teacher, but I was picky even before that.

However, when I love a book i am over the moon crazy about it and everyone EVERYONE must read it! Examples: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. East of Eden by Steinbeck, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. LOVED LOVED them. Great characters, too.

Kayeleen said...

My husband and I were just talking about this with regards to my current MC. How to make her seem more authentic.

As far as my reading, I love, LOVE, love to read. Right now, I'm kind of in a famine. My writing is making me a bit more critical of the stories I have been reading and I have been disappointed with a lot of gimmicky stuff.

I will say that I have books that I read over and over again. Some of them are because the story is just amazing, but the mostly, the ones I go back to are for the characters. Examples I can think of include Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Pride and Prejudice, and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. I just love the characters so much that I have to visit them again and again.

jessica-shea said...

I think E. Lockhart is phenomenal at creating that kind of living, breathing, flawed but I want to be her new BFF kind of character. I'm thinking of Roo in her Ruby Oliver books, but also Frankie in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

Larissa said...

Great post! I LOVED WAKE - just bought FADE and can't wait to read it.

I have the same issue with a lot of books. It's especially frustrating when I picked them because they've gotten a lot of attention. Then I read and the characters are annoyingly BLAH. Ugh.

Can't wait to hear your advice!

By the way, I gave you a blog award!

jessjordan said...

Great post, and I absolutely feel your pain. I love YA. I especially love first person. But ... I find it very hard to connect to most MCs, and thus, to the story. I always thought, "Really ... how difficult is it to make the MC a real character!?!" But now that I'm writing ... well, it's easier said than done. Needless to say, I can't wait for your post tomorrow!

Erik said...

I'm not critical of characters (unless god forbid I write), but slow, tedious writing really makes me put a book down :/

Corra McFeydon said...

Goodness, Kiersten! You must be reading all the wrong books!! I could never suffer through a lot of side characters 'telling' the character for me. What a newbie mistake?

I think writers make both the best and the worst readers. I critique everything -- including my own stuff -- and I adore reading. I adore critiquing!

Excellent post!


from the desk of a writer

Angela said...

I think you hit the nail right on the head here. It's funny how often writers tend to hit one end of the spectrum or the other--either fall in with the pack on their characters or go too far to try and be different.

Nothing can compare with balance and realism tho. :-)

twaddleoranything said...

This is a fantastic point. It can be tough to craft characters that are multifaceted and interesting without making them seem "quirky" in a phony or forced way. Thank you, as always, for the wonderful thoughts!

lcastle said...

Thanks for the funny and thought provoking post. Really, what are the telltale signs that your character is as uninteresting and flat as a white wall?

I'll have to hop over and see what advice you offer...

Corra McFeydon said...

A handmade trackback since I can't figure out how to do it the official way. :) I mentioned this article at my blog in a january in review post. Cheers! - Corra McFeydon