Determining What Readers Want

I was between books. Nothing in my to-be-read pile seemed quite right, even the half dozen books I’d started. I found my way to the library and checked out a novel by an author I’d met. It wasn’t in my normal genre, but I was OK with that because I find it to be a nice change of pace now and then to read something different.

The next day, however, a book arrived that I’d been waiting for. I ripped open the package and read the first two chapters during lunch.

So now I had two books going. Two books I wanted to read.

And which one did I choose? The one with the character I liked better. Never mind that it used considerable jargon I didn’t understand or that it didn’t read as smoothly as the other one.

Please note, I didn’t sit down and analyze the characters to decide which book to read. I simply went with the one I felt like reading. At first I chose the one I thought more appropriate for putting me to sleep since I was reading right before bedtime. But the next time I chose, I reached for the same book. Finally it dawned on me, that’s the book I really wanted to read the most.

Why was that?

I looked at the various fiction elements in both books and knew. One character I liked and the other irritated me.

The one I liked wasn’t perfect, mind you. He was doing some dumb things and suffering the consequences. But he didn’t appear to be arrogant; he didn’t treat others as if they didn’t matter or were an inconvenience to him.

I suspect I tolerated and even felt empathy for him in the midst of his mess because I liked him. I’ve tried to pinpoint the likable qualities.

One thing that stands out is how other characters treated him. A good number were patient with him, were willing to help him and counsel him—even some family he pushed away. There was also a selfish character who pushed him away, which made me feel for him and like him all the more.

In fact that loss and another one of note, made him seem vulnerable.

At the same time, he had a number of admirable qualities. He was responsible and brave and selfless. And when he blew it, he was remorseful.

He wasn’t cocky or arrogant, yet he had a problem with pride. He wanted to be in charge, to rule what he couldn’t rule. But he wasn’t a bully or a snob. His problems put other people in jeopardy, but he suffered too.

Often times, I think I like a book for the story. I say with some frequency that story trumps all. But what I’m learning is that a good character makes the story. If I can’t connect with the character, then I have little interest in seeing him try to save the day or woo the girl or become a man.

Ho-hum, I think, a book with a protagonist I don’t connect with might still be good for one thing. It might put me to sleep. 😉

Published in: on March 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm  Comments (2)  
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Characters – Who Do You Love?

Because I’m a writer, I think about writing technique and writing components and writing style and writing voice (the subject of my last Rewrite, Reword, Rework writing-tips post). One of the “components” of fiction, of course, is characters.

As I wrote my review yesterday of Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand, I once again thought about characters and what makes readers love them—or at least like them enough to read their entire story.

I suspect characters in novels, like real people, will draw those to them who admire them or connect with them or sympathize with them. Yet occasionally, along comes a truly charismatic person who seems to draw people to him from all walks of life.

A friend of mine is reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin filled with primary sources—letters he wrote and letters he received. It seems good ol’ kite-flying Ben was more than a statesman, more than an inventor. He was a charismatic individual others wanted to be around, whether those “others” were in England or France or back home in America.

So here’s the connection: might there not be characters who draw crowds the same way Ben Franklin did? Or the way, apparently, LeBron James does today?

Same friend asked me what the big deal was with LeBron James that he would merit an hour show to announce where he was going to play basketball. Charisma, I said. Or charm. He has a way of wooing reporters to his side (referees, apparently, too).

Charisma might be different than charm, or maybe that’s just in my mind. But again, the point here is that some characters could foreseeably be the kind that inspire devotion, couldn’t they? I’m not talking about a niche group of devotees, either.

Hans Solo is an example of the kind of character I’m referring to. Or how about Magnum from TV’s Magnum, P. I.

Who in books has that kind of charisma? I think of my favorites and I’d have to say, those stories don’t have charismatic characters. At least not as protagonists.

Aslan is charismatic in the Narnia books. Gandalf, too, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But Harry Potter? Though he was a nice boy, he wasn’t the driving force, the compelling reason I wanted to keep reading those books.

So how important is a character readers love? I think it might be an important enough question for me to poll you all and see what you think. Thanks in advance for your participation. 😀 Feel free to leave comments as well. The more I hear what others think, the more I learn about crafting characters.

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm  Comments (16)  
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Refreshing Fiction Continued

As most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer or their love conquers and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable differences (until they are reconciled – 😉 ).

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see the romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else.

Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters) and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Another tack is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty and you have Shrek. Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history look like?

What would a romance between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack look like?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the ideas that present themselves when we writers first start contemplating a story.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am  Comments Off on Refreshing Fiction Continued  
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Making Characters Likable

When I get a chance, I’ll jump into the discussion about climate change, but I’m sagging off the topic to write about what’s on my mind now. I just finished an editing project and am back at work on my own writing. This is what I love, but I feel like I’m still learning.

This weekend I was once again thinking about the magic that happens when a reader takes to a character in a novel. For one, readers are forgiving of lots of other things—wordy descriptions, predictable outcomes, sketchy settings, plodding prose.

Mind you, I’m not advocating the idea that writers should concentrate on writing great characters so they can slide by in other areas. I’m just saying, when readers fall in love with a character, they will overlook other problems.

Another bit of the magic that occurs—readers don’t forget books when they love the character. They may even line up to get the next one, if the same character is the star.

But most importantly, I think, when readers love a character, they think about the character’s dilemma and heart aches and decisions and dangers and changes. In other words, they are engaged with the character in a way that makes them think about the larger issues.

The question is, how does a writer create characters like this? Over the years I’ve written on this subject quite a bit, but I think I stumbled on something I hadn’t thought of before, at least when writing female characters. (OK, I just saw this same “discovery” in a post I wrote three and a half years ago, so I guess this isn’t new at all. I just forgot it! 😳 )

I think a likable character will not only have strengths and weaknesses, be larger than life, be properly motivated, and have all the other necessary elements, but also will have vulnerability. A character readers love is a character they feel compassion for. Not pity. And not disdain.

So the character can’t feel sorry for herself or do stupid things because of the plight she’s in. She needs to be strong enough to keep going forward, but not so strong she seems to need no one else.

As I think about it, I belief Knife in R. J. Anderson’s wonderful Faery Rebels is an example of this kind of character. She was tough and resourceful and eager to be out in the world, but when she got there, she came face to face with things she didn’t have and people she didn’t want to lose. The further into the story, the more her vulnerability showed.

Anyway, now I have to think about whether or not this trait is something male protagonists need too, and if so, in what ways it differs from their female counterparts. Your thoughts?

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm  Comments (4)  
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Women Protagonists and the Men Who Don’t Want to Read about Them

I realize that I am walking a thin line between understanding the male mind, when it comes to reading preferences, and stereotyping.

Some, of course, think I am stereotyping simply by referring to “the male mind” as if all humans have the same basic structure, with only individual distinctions. Well … no … besides being human we are male and female, as God created us. And then we are individuals.

Consequently I have no problem discussing “the male mind,” with the understanding that individual men will vary on either side of a continuum identified with “maleness.” But keep in mind, what I am saying on this subject is my opinion, based on my observation, not on a scientific study or even a poll eliciting corroborating (or conflicting) views.

Recently a visitor here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction asked some questions after one of my posts on women protagonists, “Women in Fiction, Part 3”:

As a female who reads a great deal, I would agree with that statement [that women can identify with female characters and better understand men by understanding the male character]. I am curious, though. Why wouldn’t the reverse also be true? Why do you think that men can’t learn about us through reading books with female main characters?

I think there are several reasons for the difference I see (and remember, I’m not saying every man will fit in every one of my points—some may not fit in any).

First, contemporary American society has created an atmosphere that can easily cause a man (and especially a boy) to be insecure in his identity as a male.

What is a man? Not so long ago answers to that question might have included “bread winner” or “leader” or “head of the household.” These things are no longer a given, and a man who wishes to claim those roles may be disparaged by society.

Being a man, then, has been reduced to a list of actions, often unattractive (scratching, spitting, ogling, and the like), but sometimes macho (assertion of power and prowess).

What man, searching for his identity in this climate, would then rush out to buy and read books starring women?

My contention is that men who have no problem reading books with female characters are probably quite comfortable with their identity as men.

I believe a second reason fewer men read books with women protagonists than do women with male protagonists, has to do with the differences in our gender make-up.

Women are emotional. Well, men are too, so let me back up. Women are more comfortable expressing our emotions than men are. In fact, I’d say women don’t feel we know people well unless we know the emotional side of them. We explore emotions because we want to connect with emotions. I suspect some men reading this paragraph are just about ready to gag. 😀

Typically men are less likely to show emotion and may even be uncomfortable around others who readily express feelings. I’ve seen boys mock boys for no other reason than for caring deeply.

And in books with women protagonists? I’d bet they all cry at least once. 😉 In fact, many of us as writers hope to induce our readers to cry (and laugh and feel some fear or worry or … emotion). Do guys pick up a book hoping they’ll cry? I doubt it! (Do male authors even wish to generate emotion the same way women writers do? Now that’s a question I haven’t thought of before).

There may be a host of other peripheral reasons why men and boys, in general, prefer to read books about guys not girls, men not women. I thought I could explore some of those as well, but I forgot how I tend to go on and on. (Perhaps a trait endemic to my role as a woman. 😉 ) Anyway, I think these two may be at the heart of the matter. Let me know what you think.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 9:28 am  Comments (5)  
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Women in Fiction, Part 3

So my contention is that men don’t want to read books that feature women. (Unless, of course, there are pictures! 😳 )

Here’s my thinking. Part of the reading experience is identifying with the main character. Men don’t want to identify with a woman. They’d feel less than a man.

Women, on the other hand, like to read books about either gender. We can identify with the female character and we can better understand men by understanding the male character.

Big generalities, I know, but I think there’s something to it. Here’s my theory.

What do we have in the book business? Mostly romance, written mostly by women. And yet in the CBA, most of the acquiring editors are men. I’m guessing a good number of the individuals on the pub boards (the ones making the decisions about what books to publish) are men, too.

The men making the decisions don’t know that women readers will read books with a variety of protagonists. They think women readers are like them, wanting to read about a character like them.

So they acquire books they think will appeal to women, knowing that manly-men won’t touch those books with a pole-vault-sized pole.

The problem is, those books only appeal to some women and to no men. The market is fairly closed, and perhaps even shrinking.

The “man books,” however, seem to do pretty well. Of course, I’m not privy to sales records, so I could be wrong, but I’ve seen Ted Dekker’s name on the best selling list a time or two. 🙂

But not every author is as successful. One of the best authors in the CBA, in my opinion, is one few have read. Why? His books are “man books” and men didn’t find out about them. They’re also “man books” dealing with overly-mined territory.

But here’s what happens. Because those books didn’t meet the publisher’s expectation, the report is, this particular house won’t be publishing any more books for men. They tried, and it didn’t work.

One series.

Guys who like sports might prefer a sports book, but that wasn’t an option. Those who want to read books with car chases and lots of explosions wouldn’t have found a book to their liking. In other words, no one novel fits all men.

And no one novel fits all women. But that’s not something women have to worry about because publishers have expanded their fiction selection for women. Besides romance (and there’s an abundance of that) women can choose from suspense, cozy mysteries, woman’s fiction, historicals, and even fantasy (think Karen Hancock and Sharon Hinck).

How many of those books are gender-crossovers?

Are such books possible? Desirable?

Still more to say about this subject. Another day.

Published in: on April 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm  Comments (5)  
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Women in Fiction, Part 2

Some interesting comments and a related article came out of my last post on this topic.

One particular point that came up several times is that manly men do not want to read stories about manly women. Well, that certainly makes sense. I’d add that girlie-girls don’t want to read stories about manly women, nor do womanly-women.

But are strong, independent women, “manly women”? I ask because I didn’t mention “manly women” but my description must have evoked that image. Maybe tough was the word that created that picture. I hope it wasn’t clever.

Think for a moment about real-life people. I’d consider Condoleezza Rice, for example, strong, independent, smart (more than clever), and from time to time, tough. I would not consider her a manly woman.

Of course there are women today who intentionally want to look like a man and act like a man. But I’m thinking there are also women who have adopted mannish behavior without realizing it. I think of women ogling pictures of bare-chested men or punctuating every sentence with a swear word or cutting others off in traffic or in conversation.

Not that I’m saying all men do those things. But let’s be honest. As Mike Duran implied in his post, men think about sex:

“getting the girl” is the stuff of boys (and men!). Heck, that’s practically all the guys at my work talk about. (Of course, what that means for them is a whole other story.)

Men are also aggressive and because of their left-brain focus, may not be aware when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. (I have a destination to bag, so other drivers aren’t even on the road, as far as I can see. 😆 )

Unfortunately in the culture today, there seems to be a growing number of women who are adopting these behaviors, as if they are better for that conduct.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, are clingers, weak-willed women, ones who expect to be victimized and welcome it. These are the silly women who can’t help but go out on the porch in the dead of night, alone, when they know an ax murderer is in the neighborhood, because they think they heard a noise. Paaaleeezz!

Then there are the ditsy types who can’t seem to find anything interesting to say beyond fashion or entertainment. Or the piously demure types who can’t think for themselves but must parrot whatever their husband tells them. Or how about models who can’t seem to think about anything but their next workout and the half stick of celery they’re planning to have for lunch. Or what about the little old blue-haired ladies who complain about drums and guitars in church.

Enough silliness.

Through all this conversation, I discovered one thing I don’t want to find in the women characters I read about—stereotypes. I also don’t want all the women to be the same, because clearly in real life we are not.

And still I have more to say on this topic. Another day

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 4:09 pm  Comments (5)  
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Women in Fiction

Random thoughts about women in fiction. I’ve said from time to time that my observation leads me to believe men don’t really want to read books with women protagonists. I’ve never had men argue against that position, though a few will say they don’t mind so much.

Women, on the other hand, seem content to read books with a protagonist from either gender. But one thing seems to be surfacing—the woman main character must be strong in some way, not just beautiful.

I realized some time ago that one reason I don’t like typical suspense featuring a female protagonist is because in all likelihood, she will be weak and/or vulnerable at some point in the story, either running for her life or for her chastity. I don’t like stories in which a woman is fearful throughout.

At the same time, in one of the recent CSFF Blog Tours, we featured R. J. Anderson’s Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter. A number of the “manly men” participating noted that they did not expect to like the book because of the cover featuring a truculent faery they found to be too much like Tinkerbell, a connection I hadn’t made at all.

As it turned out, our faery female was a tough and independent young thing who took the name Knife—not your typical girlie-girl. And the manly men loved the story.

There are plenty of girlie-girls if fiction, especially in romance. Some are patient and demure and adoring. Some, like she of Twilight fame, are willing to sacrifice all for the one they obsess over.

I heard a startling figure this last weekend—fully eighty percent of all books (not just Christian books) sold in the US are romances. Accurate or not, I think the perception is telling—we are a culture seeking relational bliss, women with men.

Yes, there are coming of age stories featuring guys. Hatchet comes to mind as does Peace Like a River. And there are some action-adventure stories mostly about guys. Alton Gansky has written at least one such book. So has Ted Dekker.

But for the most part, women show up in fiction, if not in the protagonist’s role, then in a role demanding her own subplot.

So I wonder. Is this why men notoriously don’t read fiction? Do guys really not want to read the romance, just as they do not want to go to movies identified as romantic comedies?

Do they not read because they don’t want to know what Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy were whispering about in their attic? Do they not read because they don’t care how Ann Shirley felt as a little orphan girl arriving in a home that expected a boy.

Do men not read because books are too cerebral and not visceral enough? Or manly enough?

And if women protagonists become tougher, more clever, stronger, and independent, will men want to read about those women more?

Believe it or not, these thoughts have something to do with the Church, too, but I’ll need to make that connection another day in a part two, or maybe a part three.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Comments (7)  
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What I Learn about Writing from Avatar

Those of you sick of this subject, feel free to click on over to a more interesting blog. I won’t feel offended (or even know!) 😆 I do have a tendency to camp on a subject (see ten-plus posts on The Shack, for example), but just so you know, I really tried to spark thoughts on a new topic. I visited other blogs, thought about the book I just finished, about what I read in my quiet time, and current events. Sorry, nothing there to share with you all.

So I’m back at Avatar one more time. I’ve thought about how this movie really seems to have three or four level. I identify the story level, the theme level, and the creative presentation level.

  • The story level includes the plot and character development (though some people might divide these two, which I would not disagree with).
  • The theme level includes the religious views and the sociopolitical ideology.
  • The creative presentation refers to the visual effect.
  • Most people agree that Avatar came up short on the story level. Sure, it had a sweet romance, but nothing was a surprise. From the moment Neytiri rescued Jake, it was apparent they would fall in love and that he would ultimately join the Na’vi.

    In addition, the characterization was weak. In a three hour movie, we learned very little about any other member of the Na’vi. And the earthlings were pigeon-holed neatly in their roles—the gun-happy military guy, the greedy and stupid capitalist, the tough on the outside but tender on the inside woman scientist, the geeky co-worker.

    I question whether anyone would come if Avatar, as written, were presented in the theater. I suspect the scathing reviews of the story would have the play shut down after the first week.

    The second level has to do with the message. Here Avatar either succeeded hugely or failed miserably, depending on whether or not you agreed with what James Cameron said. Some people camp on the environmental message or the anti-technology message, depending how you look at things. Some viewers wept because of the portrayal of the military while others wept for the loss of the Na’vi’s tree home.

    Another group of us either laud the movie or criticize it because of the religious views it espouses.

    On this thematic level, Avatar is steeped in controversy—never a bad thing for sales. But does it make for a quality movie?

    The last element is the creative presentation. This movie was a visual experience. I felt transported. I lived on Pandora for those three hours. I found myself frustrated with the sections of the movie that showed Jake on the military/commercial/scientific base and away from the real world of Pandora.

    Those latter sections made me feel as if I was running across the rim of the world after having been in a wheelchair for years, as if I had learned to ride a flying creature past the floating mountains. It was beautiful, stunning, exhilarating. It was an experience.

    Which brings me to what I as a writer learned about this movie. Reading should be an experience. Through story, characters, setting, the writer should transport the reader somewhere else.

    But not having the benefit of 3D or first-time technology, writers can’t afford to have flat characters or a warmed-over plot (and certainly never both in one story!) Nor can we afford to be heavy handed with our themes.

    Still, the goal for the novelist is the same—take the readers somewhere. Into the lives of your characters, into the world you’ve created, into the high-stakes issues you care about. Let them experience—beyond the adrenalin rush, beyond the tear-jerk moment. Transport them Elsewhere and keep them there to the last page.

    In the end, I have to believe such a book is more powerful, influential, timeless than Avatar can ever be.

    Now if I just knew how to write like that …

    Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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    Avoiding the Predictable

    From the brief amount of study I’ve done regarding the topic of derivative fiction, I’ve come to believe that the real error a writer should avoid in any genre is predictability.

    A dragon is not just a big snake, and a magic sword is not merely a very sharp piece of steel; at least, not unless an author fails to make anything more out of them. The stock elements of fantasy are only as dull as we allow them to be.
    – “Quality in Epic Fantasy” by Alec Austin at Strange Horizons

    I love that quote. It challenges me as a writer to go beyond the expected, to avoid the cliches, not only in language but in character and in plot.

    When I was growing up and westerns were common, the classic character cliche was the bad guy wearing the black hat and the good guy wearing the white. The bad guy also often needed a shave, slouched, was cruel to women and children and animals, and spat a lot.

    As far as predictable plots were concerned, common ones included the restless cowboy being “tamed” by the beautiful maiden in distress; the cavalry arriving in the nick of time to save the surrounded wagon train/settlement; against all odds and without the support of the fearful citizens, the skilled/cunning/brave lawman cleans up the crime-infested town.

    I believe these character cliches and predictable plots nearly killed westerns. But along came Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and suddenly, no one cared that westerns weren’t done any more. We could debate what making outlaws into the protagonists said to or about our culture, but we can’t deny how much more interesting the story was than it would have been if the Pinkerton man was the hero.

    I suspect much of the complaint against Christian fiction is actually a complaint about its predictability. After all, if a character is a Christian, there are Scriptural parameters that dictate how that person will behave. And if a character isn’t a Christian, there will be a set of beliefs or anti-beliefs that define that individual. Where are the surprises?

    And how is a Christian to grow? Not by drifting from God. How is a non-Christian to grow? Not by remaining unrepentant. So the story seems laid out as soon as the players tip their hands regarding their worldview.

    Must it be so? One solution some authors apparently have come upon is to ignore Christianity, at least when it comes to playing a significant part in the plot or character development. These are the books I’d like to see renamed as clean fiction.

    But back to the subject of predictability. It seems to me, if a magic sword is only as dull as we allow it, then a Christian or a conversion is only as dull as we allow it.

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