Care About Your Characters Or Your Readers Won’t

WITS is happy to welcome back James Preston, author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries series.

James’ wife, Nancy, encouraged Fae Rowen to write her first book.  James encouraged Fae to go to the San Diego Writers Conference to learn how to write that first book.

Today he shares his insight on why we write and why we read. 

by James R. Preston

The wooden dock swayed under the weight of a hundred anxious people as the sailing ship coasted toward it.  The ship had news, news of someone they cared about.  As it neared the dock the crowd began to shout, “Does she live?  Does she live?”  The sailors, who had read the newspaper in England, called back, “Little Nell is Dead!”

Talk about a spoiler!  The crowd rioted, but here’s the catch: Nell Trent is not flesh-and-blood.  She is a character that Charles Dickens made up for The Old Curiosity Shop.

I want to talk about something different—not plot points or the pitfalls of ping-pong dialog or snappy endings that leave the reader wanting your next book.  I want to talk about Little Nell.

I want to talk about why we do it, the value in our work, regardless of our sales figures or the size of our audience.

Why do we do it? 

I mean, think about the hours you spend learning the craft and the times when you go, “Uh, what happens next?”  Face it, if you play the piano at the very least you can bang out carols at the company Christmas party.  If you sketch you can draw flyers for your daughter’s soccer team.  You get the idea.  Hold that thought.

First, a question.

Ever ride a toboggan?

When I was very young my best friends were my cousins, some of whom lived in San Diego.  We’re talking single digits here, for all of us, age-wise.  After wearing ourselves out with  near-death experiences on their Flexi Flyer they always wanted me to tell them stories and I loved to oblige.

One of their favorites was The Snow Kings.  The Snow Kings were three kids who had this flying toboggan they used to fight crime and space monsters.  The problem was they had to have a steep hill or a rooftop to launch the thing and there was never one around when they needed it.

My cousins loved those stories because they were about kids like us, except they had adventures, (not to mention a flying toboggan).  We all knew that I was not going to end a story with, “They fell off the toboggan and plummeted screaming to their deaths.”  But they liked the stories anyway.  The kids were what was important.

I think what you and I do—tell stories about people—is important. And that’s why you should keep doing it.

Made-up or not, Little Nell caused a sensation when she went to her reward.  There are stories that Thackeray was found in his office, sobbing.  Another writer threw the book out of the window of the train he was in.  People cared.

Spoiler Alert!

I remember the first time I was invited to talk to a book club, and the very first thing they wanted to know was what my protagonist T. R. Macdonald would have done if his wife had been available when he met and fell in love with the curvaceous Kandi.

The ladies in the club were talking about Mac and Kandi as if they were real people.  I almost said, “Ladies, how should I know?  They’re constructs!”  but I didn’t, for a variety of reasons.  First they were paying and deserved a thoughtful answer and second, well, I’ll get to that.

The “takeaway” from the story above is this:

It’s the characters.  That why we do it, that’s what your readers care about.  That’s why there are a million readers counting the days until November 20, when Notorious Nineteen comes out and we get to see what Stephanie Plum is up to now.  I am pretty sure that she will not plummet to her death from a flying toboggan, but I want to read it anyway.  I care about Stephanie, Grandma Mazur, and all the others.

The book club ladies deserved an answer and I realized that Mac and Kandi are not the constructs that I thought they were.  They have taken on a life of their own.

It’s the people who are important.  That’s why we do it.  If we are lucky our characters come to life, leap off the page, and tell us their story.  Listen to 14-year-old Kaylee Miraflores, a character in Pennies For Her Eyes:

“I’m adopted, of course.  Oh, I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”  She looked at me uncertainly, then looked down at her plate again.  “My, um, my biologic father ran away when I was three and my mother fell in love and when I was five she got remarried and my new father is this wonderful man and I love him so much.  So one day—I was seven—we were moving down to Huntington and I asked him if I could tell the kids at school my name was Miraflores instead of Keene and he started crying and said he wanted to adopt me but he didn’t know how to ask me so now I’m Kaylee Miraflores.”  She stopped for breath, looked up, then quickly looked back down at her burger.

Kaylee is revealing part of herself, sharing with the other characters and with the reader.  I didn’t exactly plan it, the words never appeared on a plot card or in my notes.  I didn’t know this part of it until she started talking and explained it to me.  Kaylee is important to me, and I hope to the people who will read about her.

The importance of story, of the people we write about, has not diminished since Little Nell.

A hundred and fifty years after her unfortunate demise, I witnessed young readers exit a bookstore on Maui, and sit down on the cement so they could open and start reading the newest Harry Potter.

What you do—your writing—is important.  It’s the people.  If you care about your characters it will show and they will speak to you and to your readers.

So don’t feel bad that you won’t be entertaining at the company party.  Just keep talking to those people in your head.  They’ll talk back.

Somewhere The Snow Kings are dragging that toboggan around, looking for a place to launch it so they can save the world.  And as far as how Mac would have worked it out if Diana had been available when he met Kandi, I don’t know.

But he does.

Thanks for asking me back.  This is a great blog, one that I’m proud to contribute to.  It offers excellent advice on the process of writing.  I learn something from every essay I read.

Speaking of learning something—do you have a character you have connected with at a visceral level?  If I were a betting man (and I am) I would say, “Yes.”  Are you willing to share?  I’d like to hear about them and so would the other WITS readers.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, let’s talk.  (Do I see Hannibal Lecter grinning from a prison cell?)

Next time, back to technical stuff—point of view.  There will be a quiz.  And if you take what I have said today to heart, there will be a next time.

About James

James R. Preston writes the Surf City Mysteries, the most recent of which is Pennies For Her Eyes.  His most recent signing was at Men of Mystery, where he appeared on the same bill as New York times bestselling, awesome writer James Rollins.  (That sound in the background is Preston’s own horn tooting.)  Check out www.jamesrpreston.com for more information.  And if your book club wants a live one, send an email.

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22 Responses to Care About Your Characters Or Your Readers Won’t

  1. Edith says:

    No doubt about it, the characters are the reason we do it. They just keep insisting that I sit down and write their story…not mine, but theirs! Great post.

    • Oh, Edith. This is why I must write, too!
      -Fae

      • Forgive how long iit has taken me to respond — I’ve been at a car auction all day. (Didn’t buy.) Edith, it is a great, no, wonderful, sign that your characters insist that you tell their story. Do you have a favorite character — not one of your own – that you respond to? For me at an early age it was Sherlock holmes.

        • Edith says:

          Oh for me it has to be Miss Marple. I love that woman – she’s nosy, and courageous, feisty and never accepts what the ‘professional’ think! And she knits too (though I suspect that’s really a ploy to make people thin she’s a harmless old lady…clever girl!) BTW I really enjoyed reading your responses t all your commentators!🙂

    • Edith, thank you for the kind words. I enjoy this immensely and was delighted to be asked back. Now, about me & Sherlock — I found The Complete Sherlock Holmes at the El Segundo Public Library when I was in Junior High . I got home around noon; my parents were gone for the day. Sat down on the couch to read and looked up because it was getting dark. That’s characters that get your attention!

  2. Vicky Green says:

    I find myself connecting with most of the heroines in my favorite novels in one way or another. And then I can’t get them out of my head.

    P.S. I also look forward to the latest Stephanie Plum antics.

    Vicky Green

    • LOL Vicky, the next one has Grandma Mazur going undercover in an assisted living home. Oh, the possibilities! Interesting that you said “heroinies.” Any heros that you connect iwth?

  3. Thanks, James … all stories begin with a single concept. Mine begin with a single person glued to that concept. I love them, treasure them like a doll collection, the first pic of my first grandchild … those precious moments in my life. Characters are what we live and read for🙂

    BTW … I want to know what happens with Morelli next. Or will she diddle with Ranger some more before she settles down with the Italian Stallion?

  4. Oh, James, this is such timely advice for me as I’m finishing up my first YA, and going back to layer in emotion. When I finish reading a “keeper” I actually have a little mourning period because I don’t get to be in the lives of “my” characters any more.Maybe I should start reading more series!
    Thanks for writing with us!-Fae

    • Ooooh, good question. Morelli or Ranger? And if she picks Ranger, would he give up his street persona? He was, after all, married once.
      Yes, I treasure my characters, too. One in particular, Heather rubinski, a Las Vegas showgirl, is special for me. Um, every once in a while she says things like, “Suck it up! type faster!” I know you won’t think that’s strange, but I’m careful who I share that with.

      • Fae has nailed it. Series are popular because you know the people, and like them. I think The Sopranos was a remarkable, well-written series, but I just couldn’t connect with anyof the characters. If a meteor landed and killed them all I’d say, “Bummer,” and plug in another DVD. But if that happened to Harry and Hermione and co, I’d be upset! Side note: That’s why publishers like them, too. Built-in audience.

  5. I believe I connect more with my characters now (after the fourth book) than I did with the first. Perhaps I’m a better writer now? Well, I mean, I AM writing better. My first book was something like 125,000 words of rambling internal narrative! AACK! I widdled that baby down to about 60,000 and now it’s a much better book, and it includes dialogue now!

    • Dialog is a good thing, Patricia. I’m glad you have some now. All teasing aside, it sounds like you had a great rewrite. Four books is an accomplishment to be proud of. And sure you’re a better writer — writing is like playing the piano; it takes practice. Did you connect more after the rewrite? It sounds like that was the case.

  6. When I’m reading a great book, I always feel like I’m actually getting to know real, amazing people. I think this is why I love rereading books so much – it’s like revisiting an old friend. And those characters can be just as inspiring as the actual people met in life, so yes, I definitely agree that writing is important, and the characters that are created are important and can have real, lasting impacts on the lives of their readers. Great post!

    • Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the post; it was a fun one to write. One of the things my wife & I have in common is our love of rereading good books. I have no idea how many times I’ve read Have Sapce Suit — Will Travel, a great Robert A Heinlein novel, except that when I was interviewed by the school paper in the seventh grade I listed it as my favorite book. Thanks for replying to the post! Keep reading!

  7. amyskennedy says:

    Richard Jury. Martha Grimes’ fictional Detective Superintendent, Scotland Yard. I’m certain to marry him some day, or, rather, since I’m already married share a cup of tea or bourbon.

    Wonderful post!

    • Hmmm, Amy, you might want to take a look at a book called The Number of the Beast, a sf novel by Robert A. Heinlein. It’s not his most successful book, but he works with that concept. Reality? HehHehHeh. It’s worth a look. And I’m very glad you lliked Little Nell.

  8. I understand from RWASD members that the San Diego Writers’ Conference has been cancelled. Please confirm.
    Sarah Richmond

    • I just checked and Sarah, you are, unfortunately, correct. The SDSU Extension-sponsored writers’ conference has been canceled for 2013. However, there is a new premiere conference, California Dreamin,’ co-sponsored by three Southern California RWA chapters. It’s shaping up very much like a mini-national RWA conference with agent appointments and some cool extras. Check out the link.
      -Fae

  9. Nuts! Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I got my first agent at the SDSU conference (she has since retired) and presented there twice, once on a panel and once solo. It’s much farther but the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in the Seattle area is awesome. They have amazing keynote speakers–I think you need a Pulitzer to be considered. Anyway, it’s worth checking out. Does anyone know what happened to SDSU?
    Signed,
    A Bummed-Out James

  10. Shirley Wine says:

    What a fascinating topic. I love it that characters come off the page and talk to me. I have one such bit player in my current WIP One Hour To Midnight who fascinates me. He barely says a hundred words and yet I can’t get him out of my mind. Here’s his final words in the book and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:

    “I hate this intrusion in my life,” Veronica said, her voice shaky.
    “It’s part of life with Leon.”
    Flynn’s dry observation made her smile. She’d never known another person who could say so much by saying so little.

    Now I need to know why Flynn is like he is… what made him so quiet, so observant and so often right? I thought this particular book would never spawn another… seems I was wrong.

  11. Shirley, now you’ve made me want to know more about why Flynn is ther way he is. Is he trying to help Veronica, or is he saying, “Suck it up girl, that’s just the way Leon is.”
    For me it was Alys Winters in Leave A Good-Looking Corpse. She was supposed to be a walk-on (swim-on actually as she drags my hero out of the water and saves his life) but she just wouldn’t go away Also, the Las Vegas showgirl, Heather Rubinski in Read ‘Em And Weep. She still talks to me. BTW, this blog is one of the few places where I can talk about “the voices” and not have people look at me oddly.
    And why does Flynn’s comment make Veronica smile? Interesting.
    Thanks for writing!

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