I've often mentioned in reviews how important good character development is to me in a book. So, for awhile now I've been mulling around thoughts for a post on character, and recently two items arose in my reading to light a fire under me and get this discussion started.
One of those two items was a "Booking Through Thursday" topic that I noticed a couple of bloggers responding to. The topic read like this:
If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite reasons to read is for the story. Not for the character development and interaction. Not because of the descriptive, emotive powers of the writer. Not because of deep, literary meaning hidden beneath layers of metaphor. (Even though those are all good things.) No … it’s because you want to know what happens next? Or, um, is it just me?
I don't know where these topics originate, so I don't know who the "me" is, but I knew that I disagreed with the statement. And I had trouble putting it into words until I read a resolution that Tim Hallinan had in a guest post he did on the Acme Writers' blog. His resolution said:
6. Follow my characters rather than trying to push them around like chess pieces. Remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to jam them into.
Yes, Tim! Exactly. As a reader, that's exactly what I want to read. The greatest plot in the world will fall flat on its face if you try to shove the wrong characters into it. Or, as I experienced with Joseph Wambaugh, if you try to tell too many characters' stories all at once, it just doesn't work. Doesn't matter how funny or alluring those stories are. The plot must fit with the characters.
As far as finding out what happens next; I want to find out what happens next only if I have made connections with the character. If I love the character and want to see everything work out for him/her or if I hate the character and what to see him/her get their due. If I'm indifferent to a character, I can put a book down with no trouble. And I don't know that I can give an example of an excellent plot existing without excellent characters. But then again, I'm far more likely to abandon a book if the characters don't do anything for me...so maybe there are some great plots out there that I never ended up finishing.
The greatest books I read leave the characters knocking around inside my head for days or weeks after I finish the book. I'm not thinking about what happened in the book but rather what those characters are doing/thinking/being after the conclusion. I'm thinking about how they'd react to events I encounter or events in the news. Maybe I'll see a person on the street and that person makes me think of a character from a book I enjoyed. Characters live on for me long after a plot has ended, so how they are developed and how they interact with others is vital.
I'm not at all saying that plot isn't important. But plot needs to grow from characters. For example, if Harlan Coben had tried to put Myron Bolitar on Shutter Island, it would have never worked. And Robert Crais could never have Elvis Cole dictating his family around like Bull Meecham. And how about Craig Johnson? His plots would have to be entirely different if he didn't have the likes of the Cheyenne characters.
If a writer has a great idea for a plot, he/she has to cultivate the characters that are appropriate for that plot. But if you have great ideas for characters, then you let those characters go and the plot emerges.
When I listened to Michael Koryta talk about his most recent book, Envy the Night, he described how it was born. How he thought about a character who was considered evil by the general population because of his acts...but a character who at the same time may have been a good family man. So, Envy the Night bloomed from that character idea. And Michael will also often say that he follows where the characters take him when he writes.
I've mentioned Corey's blog The Drowning Machine before, and he had a post back in July about what he would drink with characters if he were out to dinner with them. It was a fantastic post. I'm not a connoisseur of "drink", but it was a blast to read - Corey is so much more refined than I (although, I do know Kool-Aid!)! He decided what he would drink with these folk based on their character. Those characters have stayed with him; who they are left an impression great enough for him to determine a good drink to share with each of them.
O.k., now that you know how important Character is to me in a book, let's talk about the characters at the top of my list of favorites. I'll tell you, this was hard for me to narrow down - and I did kind of cheat (sorry). But, I came up with a Top 10 of All Adult Fiction characters and a Top 10 of Mystery/Suspense/Crime Fiction characters. I'm not even going to try to claim that I'm widely read enough for this to be a legitimate list, but they are MY Top 10 within my tiny world of reading. So, for my Mystery/Suspense/Fiction I have the following characters:
10. Temperance Brennan (Kathy Reichs)
9. Poke Rafferty (Tim Hallinan)
8. Spenser (Robert Parker)
7. Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben)
6. Kel McKelvey (Thomas Holland)
5. Ellie Hatcher (Alafair Burke)
4. Lincoln Perry (Michael Koryta)
3. Walt Longmire/Henry Standing Bear (Craig Johnson)
2. Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke)
1. Elvis Cole/Joe Pike (Robert Crais)
And yes, before anyone mentions it, I know my list is heavily white males. I will admit that I tend to be harder on my evaluations of female characters. I become irritated with "silliness" in female characters or females who are constantly in need of "saving." The race of my characters I have no excuse for at all. The largest percentage of the books I have read to date have been written by white males and their characters tend to be white males as well. Sorry.
As for my Top 10 Adult Fiction characters. This list was even harder, but here goes:
10. Lady MacBeth (Shakespeare)
9. Walt Longmire/Henry Standing Bear (Craig Johnson)
8. R.P. McMurphy (Ken Kesey)
7. Elizabeth Bennett (Jane Austen)
6. Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke)
5. Jay Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. Huck Finn (Mark Twain)
3. Owen Meany (John Irving)
2. Elvis Cole/Joe Pike (Robert Crais)
1. Atticus Finch/Scout Finch (Harper Lee)
I guess there could be some argument whether To Kill a Mockingbird is actually Adult Fiction, but I can find it in the adult section of the library, so it stays. Isn't it a prime example of character dictating plot, though?
So, there you have it. Tomorrow my list could be significantly different. There were several characters that it pained me to ultimately eliminate. They are close to the top 10 - runners up, I guess you could say, but these are the ones that made the final cut. Maybe I'll revisit this list next year and see how much it's changed. After all, before this summer Ellie, Walt, Kel, and Poke wouldn't have been on the list at all! There are so many great characters out there and I'm looking forward to meeting many, many more.