Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What a Character

“You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend.” Paul Sweeney

Keeping the reader in the story. Obviously as writers, that’s a goal we all seek to accomplish. We want the reader to empathize with our characters, to be drawn in deep enough to experience what the protagonists are experiencing. We want the reader to be engaged.

Think of those books written with such mastery you didn’t want to put them down or say goodbye when you came to The End. You were so invested in the characters and the plot you didn’t want to say goodbye. Novels that show verses tell so effectively the characters’ personalities and emotions jumped off the page. Unforgettable characters and a fast moving plot had you reading with bated breath until the last page. We relished the internal conflict forcing the characters apart and external conflict shoving them back together. As readers, we were along for the whole emotionally motivated, conflicted ride.

It got me thinking about the books I’ve read that kept me up far into the night and which character I would most liked to have been?

For me it started the day I opened a book and discovered Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old orphan who is mistakenly sent to live with a lonely middle-aged brother and sister in Prince Edward Island. I wanted to be able to come up with names like the White Way of Delight, I wanted to go for a row on the Lake of Shining Waters. I wanted a best friend like Dinah Berry.

Anne, who desperately wants a family, pulled me right in and didn’t let go. She begins the story believing she’s finally going to get her heart’s desire, then she finds out there’s been a mistake and that Matthew and Marilla, for practical reasons, really wanted a boy. They agree to give her chance but Anne’s vivacious and bubbly personality constantly lands her in trouble, leaving her future in doubt. She engaged me completely then and still does, I’ve read this book many times as a child and an adult. It never gets old.

I’ve also wanted to be a Malory, any Malory. I wanted to sail on the Maiden Anne, live on Grosvenor Square and attend the Shepford Ball. I wanted to be Georgina Anderson, Roslynn Chadwick and Regina Ashton. For that matter I’d have traded places with James Malory, Anthony Malory or Nicholas Eden.

The Malory’s were created by author, Johanna Lindsey. To me they were engaging, sympathetic, a little bit crazy and imperfect. They possessed strong individual voices that made them seem larger than life but still believable. I enjoyed being along for the ride.

There are countless other characters I’ve ridden the novel roller coaster with, too many to mention, characters to which I’ve rued saying farewell. I’ve been to Troubleshooters Inc, Steele Street, the Chesapeake Bay area, and the alleys of Caldwell, New York with some of the most engaging characters you’ll ever meet.

Stories that I think have been written as Donald Maass suggests in his book Writing the Breakout Novel: “Push your characters to the edge, and you will pull your readers close. In short, escalate the stakes and bring them home with a practical demonstration of how they might hurt, and you will add dimensions to your novel that will lift it about the crowd.”

What are some of the most memorable characters you can remember spending time with?

The words of Ernest Hemingway: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”


Captain Hook said...

You've mentioned a lot of my favorites in your list. If I go back to childhood, my favorite character was Dicey from Homecoming by Cynthia Voight.

I've had to replace that book at least 20 times because I've read them until they fall apart. I've also had each of my kids (except the youngest) read it.

In it Dicey, a 12 year old girl, and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother in a parking lot. Rather than contact the police, she leads her brothers and sister across Connecticut on foot to their cousin's house in the hopes that their mom will meet them there, their original destination.

She's not, and things don't work out for the kids there, so they take off again to find the grandmother they've never seen who lives on the Eastern shore of Maryland. They travel by foot, boat and bus to get there and have some amazing adventures.

But to me, the most amazing thing was Dicey's courage. Doing all that when you're only 12! With three younger brothers and sisters (the youngest is only 5). It fascinated me and still does to this day.

Another favorite (that I'm not going to go into detail about) is the Clan of the Cave Bear series. The characters are awesome, though she does go on way too much with description for my liking.

Janet C. said...

Great quote by Hemingway, Karyn. I'm going to add that to my quote file.

I love character driven books - always have. And it seems the whackier the character, the more the book stayed with me - made me want to be that character.

This is a good reminder to really create well rounded characters in our writing. Characters who will stay with the reader beyond the closing of the book.

Karyn Good said...

Hi Captain. I've never read Homecoming but Dicey sounds like an amazing character. I'll have to search it out to read to my daughter. There's nothing more heartrending than a story of a child having to take on the role of an adult and succeeding against the odds.

I have read The Clan of the Cave Bear series. I felt like I was right there, at the beginning of things. Gosh, haven't thought about those books in awhile, thanks for the reminder.

Thanks for sharing examples of books that drew you in!

Karyn Good said...

Hey Janet. Of course, I'm going to ask which whacky character is your favorite? My favorite whacky character, hands down, has got to be Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. Too funny!

I love that quote, too. Kinda sums it up nicely!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Stephanie Plum is a great character, very funny and ready to do just about anything. I also love the characters from Mary Balogh's "Slightly" series, especially Freya because she is such a feisty character with an inner core that is soft and vulnerable. I also like Suzanne Brockman's characters, especially her heroes. I'm currently enjoying Max Bhagat's story. Another character that is tough on the outside but vulnerable on the inside.


Karyn Good said...

Hi Jana. Poor Max, he and Sam Starrett have to be two of my all time favorites heros. Enjoy Max and Gina's story, it's definitely a roller coaster ride!

Thanks for mentioned Mary Balogh's "Slightly" series, more fabulous reads. AND Mary Balogh will be here guest blogging at the Chicks on October 17th!!!! Her The Heart of Christmas Harlequin anthology with novellas by herself, Nicola Cornick and Courtney Milan (another honorary Chick) comes out tomorrow, October 1st. She also has releases coming out in November and December, I believe! Exciting times!

Ban said...

There are so many characters that I've grown to love over the years - so many that have touched me but in all honesty ... there is none I have ever wanted to be. Is that odd ? I've enjoyed living their lives while I read, and missed them when the book was done but I've never wanted to BE them. I HAVE however wished to be a character of my own making in their worlds ...

Ban said...

I think that might be one of the reasons I write ...

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn, I've loved Anne's books, too although I'm not familiar with the others you've mentioned.

Other memorable characters?
- Scarlett O'Hara (didn't like her but very memorable)
- Cruella DeVille (ditto)
- Agatha Downing and Scott Gandy in LaVyrle Spencer's The Gamble
- Addie/Eve in LaVyrle Spencer's Forgiving
- Lydia and Jakob in Cheryl St John's Heaven Can Wait
- Abby and the Rev John Leaf in Victoria Bylin's Abbie's Outlaw
- and the list goes on...

Very good post, Karyn.

Karyn Good said...

Hey Ban. Which character would you imagine yourself to be?

Molli said...

Hi Karyn. I enjoyed reading this post, and the comments, too -- I learn a bit about people when they talk about their favourite authors, and ditto for favourite characters. The quotes you gave were spot on.

I don't remember if it was Black Beauty, or The Black Stallion, or The Five Little Peppers that first drew me into haunting the library, but I know it's the characters I remember from them first and then (some of) the plot. It's still that way for me today when I think about my favourites.

You, and some of the commentors, have referenced books I've read and characters I've returned to either to re-read their stories or enjoy them in subsequent books. Two that haven't been mentioned came from Mary Jo Putney in The Bartered Bride (a 19th century woman torn from her child and raped at the will of an Indonesian lord, rescued by a British lord who had to make love to her convincingly in front of the Indonesian before he could gain her freedom), and Wild Child (an independent minded woman of mixed Asian/Caucasian heritage finding her way in Victorian England). Like Ban, I haven't wanted to be them, but would love to experience their worlds.

Thanks for the memories....

Karyn Good said...

Hi Anita. How could I forget Scarlett and Rhet? Or Cruella?

You've mentioned Abby's Outlaw a few times. I'm going to have to get that book and read it!

And, Anita, you'll notice I didn't mention To Kill A Mockingbird or Atticus Finch, even though I could have. ;)

Karyn Good said...

Hi Molli. I remember the book The Five Little Peppers. Thanks for the mention of the other characters you enjoyed and Mary Jo Putney. Glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane. :)