Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 2

So what keeps the reader reading beyond those early pages?

I mentioned engaging characters—ones that are interesting, well-drawn—but the truth is, good characters aren’t enough by themselves. These well-drawn characters must also do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through Christian fiction (what I’ve mostly read since becoming a full time writer hoping to publish with a Christian publishing house), I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to root for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin (or was it Merry) looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can root for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. I had a lot of readers express an inability to sympathize with Ythnel, the protagonist of Maiden of Pain. Looking back, I can see how I relied more on bad things happening to a good character rather than clearly defining her objectives.I think I rationalized it because suffering was one of the central themes of the story.It’s a lesson I’m taking to heart in my current work, however.

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  2. Interesting people doing interesting things. Isn’t that what it all boils down to?

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