Everyone chooses their books for different reasons, but mine is always based on the characters. I have to feel something for the protagonist and the supporting cast; otherwise, I lose interest in the story. Beautiful prose is wonderful, but beautiful prose can't carry a story. A marvelous action-filled plot can make for exciting reading, but without likeable or, at the very least, gripping characters, the plot can fall flat.
There is a trick to writing memorable characters. I try to remember we're all a little broken, albeit in different ways. Look around you and become a student of human behavior. Realize that even the most together person you know has a chink somewhere in her or his armor: the need for approval, the desire to be loved, or trusted, or to be a part of something.
And we need characters such as this, characters who are broken, like us. Better yet, we need characters who are broken in ways we don't understand so that we can learn compassion. Reading has taught me so much empathy by giving me the opportunity to see life through someone else's eyes. Characters such as Celie (The Color Purple), or Sethe (Beloved), or Grant Wiggins (A Lesson Before Dying) opened my eyes differently. And just when I thought I had a handle on it all, Nnedi Okorafor showed me an entirely different world through Onyesonwu (Who Fears Death).
Even now, I only grasp their pain vicariously, because I have no experiences in my own life that equates to theirs. Yet when someone describes the pain of discrimination, I have a reference to fall back on, because Walker, Morrison, Gaines, and Okorafor made the emotional pain so real through the honest expression of their characters and their fictional lives. These authors are brave enough to hold up the problematic aspects of culture and show us what needs to change.
I grew up reading genre fiction, and while there were space ships and new worlds, the stories I read and remember were all about social issues. Vonda McIntrye, Judith Tarr, and Tanith Lee all wove stories around vibrant characters and made me realize that my desire to be accepted because of my gender was not unusual or strange. They allowed me to see the lives of strong women, and through their stories, they showed me I could change the world.
Yes, yes, you say, but what about fun stories?
Oh, absolutely. Brain candy is good, but remember: too much sugar can rot your brain.
When people ask me what I read, I tell them everything. I read non-fiction, literary fiction, genre fiction, graphic novels--all of these things are expressions of who and what we are. The characters within our stories are reflections of us. Sometimes we don't want to see our prejudices mirrored back to us, but if we pause and examine what the authors are saying to us, we might just learn a little bit about being a better person.
I learn by studying. I study by reading and watching and being aware of the world around me. I often deliberately choose to portray characters who are different from me. I do it so I can understand the world through someone else's life. I force myself to move outside the box society has placed around me, and by understanding you, I understand me just a little better.
So when someone tells me "the characters seal the deal" in one of my stories, I'm over the moon, because it means the reader saw believable emotions reflected back at them. Beautiful prose and a snappy plot are all icing on the cake, but for me, now and forever, stories are about the characters.
And, yes, I believe we can change the world through our fiction. I believe it with all my heart and with all my soul.
So keep on reading on ... and remember, the characters seal the deal.