Engaging characters engage audiences
Being a judge in Mark Lawrence's Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) has been insightful as well as enjoyable. When there's no choice about the books you read you encounter authors and stories you might not otherwise encounter. Plus you have to provide a judgement and the reasons for it, evaluating what you read becomes central to the process.
The most significant thing I've learned is this: the most successful books are the one with the characters that reach out to you and engage you in their adventures. It's why I've chosen this image to accompany the post. I think readers retain that child-like need to be hauled inside the story, to become part of the action. You don't want to face danger, travel to new worlds, fight the baddies on your own. You want to do with your friends. The truly engaging characters in any story become those friends. So how do you create these engaging characters? It's a subjective process obviously but here's my take.
1. Characters are the hook from the start
For me, the three finalists that were at the top of my list engaged me from the start even though each story was written in a different fantasy sub-genres. In the opening chapter we encountered their plight and the reader was forced to confront it alongside the character(s). It meant opening with a situation that challenged the character but the reader too. I think of this as 'Emotional Hooks' - we admire their pluck, we worry for them for reasons we may not understand. Invariably because the author has put us into the character's shoes with their vivid portrayal of that person. We experience the challenge, the injustice, the threat from their perspective. We are not onlookers.
2. Character first
Some books open with exposition geared towards world building. Personally, I think that is a mistake. My writing tutor maintained the world is another character in the story. You need to enable the protagonists to encounter the world just like they would any other character. You don't get to see every aspect of them, only the part that is relevant to the protagonist at that moment. In other words, only show us the world in order to illustrate something of the protagonist's character. We can't engage with the world, it's too big. Allow the exposition to appear naturally as the protagonist discovers more of it. My 'winner' was a story with two protagonist viewpoints, each one faced a threat but it came from the nature of the world in which they lived. It was unjust, unpleasant but it meant we learned about the character by the way they dealt with that specific event. Choosing the event is crucial here.
3. The central premise
The central premise of the story needs to be imaginative obviously. Everything stands or falls on it. It needs to be clear too, right from the start. However, what I found in my three finalists was that the premise was part of the protagonist's character. It might be a quest, a specific role, a commitment, an ability or talent - but it needs to infiltrate every aspect of the character's fibre. That's how you ensure the premise is maintained, front and centre, all the time. All three books had a highly original premise, it became part of the 'hook'. Its originality is what keeps you thinking after you've finished reading! It's clever, new but it permeates everyone you encounter in some form or another.
4. Threat challenges characters
Many of my reviews talked about the 'threat level' in the story. This doesn't mean I expect cliffhanger endings for every chapter either! What I want to see are different forms of threat and how the characters respond to it. It might involve a dispute between friends, a terrible dilemma someone must face, an uncertainty about another character can be a threat. But as the reader, we need to be made to feel that threat. We need to experience what it's like. Too often these 'minor' threats were passed over yet they offered insights we needed to see. They also provide a way to sustain suspense in a story - something I found missing in several books. I just stopped caring because the engagement flagged.
5. The importance of the antagonists
Stories always need baddies. There's a temptation to have a Major Villain but in my three winners this wasn't the case. There were a number of relatively minor roles that acted as antagonists - it was the ripples of their actions and how they impacted others (including the protagonists) that made them successful. This section is linked to my first point about world building and my fourth, threat challenges. Good antagonists need to encompass both. But unless you want an out-and-out villain, it's better to allocate the qualities to different people the protagonists must overcome. In two of the books a couple of the antagonists weren't disclosed until the very end - a great way to maintain a believeable twist in the tale. But I have to emphasize, the antagonist must engage us too. We might despise them, loath them even - but we need to have incidents that ensure we engage in this way.
There's more I could add, I suspect this post might lead into a follow-up, but I don't want to lose sight of the key points in character engagement. The debate about whether the story or character is more important isn't one I can engage in. It is always character. It must be. The story is the inevitable, inescapable sequence of events dictated by the characters. I'll return to my opening statement, we engage with the characters because they are the ones we accompany on their journey. We don't have to be their friend (we might not even like them all the time) but we need to understand how we relate to them. What is it about those people that resonates with us? I think it's our need to live through their actions, to be someone we can never be in real life. The more believeable they are to us, the more their actions make sense (because that is what that person would do), the more we engage. In the best books, the reader is vicarious, operating in symbiosis with the author. Inevitably this will mean some readers won't engage because that symbiosis isn't for them. It's highly subjective. But as a writer, you need to ensure you do you best to engage your reader by providing engaging characters.