Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Character Building.

For many authors, one of the hardest things to do is build convincing characters. In the world of commercial thriller fiction, where by default a novelist is asked to take the reader out of the ordinary world, it can be extremely tough to create characters that can be both believable and inspiring at the same time. Make your character too tough or invincible, and many readers will complain that they're not believable; make them too vulnerable, and you're stepping out of your genre altogether.

It's a tough call to make, to find a narrow spectrum of attributes that enables your hero to be tenacious, resilient and resourceful without becoming so unassailable as to insult the reader's intelligence. The simple fact is that no one author is ever going to please all of their readers all of the time: my own debut novel, Covenant, has a review on one website that lovingly praises the realism and well developed character of Ethan Warner, my main protagonist, whilst right next to it sits another review complaining of a lack of character development for.... Ethan Warner.

I've been thinking a lot about character building as a result of these apparently contradictory opinions. It's easy to put it down to the readers' differing personal tastes, but I've come to the conclusion that something must be wrong to provoke any such wildly differing opinions on any one piece of work, and in my case at least I think it boils down not to a novel's characters themselves but how those characters fit the novel in question.

I've been watching a lot of TV dramas lately, those with two main protagonists. Shows like Rizzoli and Isles ( adapted from Tess Gerritson's novels ) really show how it should be done: both the leads are experts, but in totally different fields. Both are unrealistically talented, yet it doesn't matter because their skills perfectly fit the world they inhabit and their attitudes, friendship and banter keep the viewer coming back for more. Another hit show currently running, The Walking Dead, does much the same thing but within a more serious world of survival and hardship. What these shows have in common is that the characters, friend or foe, are in constant conflict with each other, and conflict is what makes thriller fiction tick. But it's not the conflict of 1940's movies, with a moustachioed mastermind villain and the upstanding British agent in pursuit - it's real, day to day conflict of character that we all know ourselves from school or work or whatever, amplified to cater to the audience demand for something out of the ordinary, to be entertained by characters facing things that, most likely, we will never have to face.

Commercial fiction works much like these kind of shows, with characters placed in high-risk situations or careers whom we then follow. While keeping a viewer entertained for an hour is perhaps a bit easier than keeping a reader hooked for 400 or more pages, the same rules apply. If your lead character's nature perfectly complements the world they inhabit, then everything else will become more believable to the reader. Heroic or cowardly, humurous or droll, strong or weak or troubled or upbeat, the character must fit their world perfectly or somebody, somewhere, will find fault. The less that do, the more likely your next work will find success in a tough marketplace.