The Best Characters Are Broken

Broken Glass

‘The best characters are broken.’

I came across this quote yesterday and it has stayed with me. I started to think about why this is the case and how the reader identifies with broken characters. The quote was a little nugget in a much longer article by writer Faith Hunter. She writes in the fantasy/thriller genre but this concept travels across all genres of fiction and, I should add, non-fiction.

Why? 

Psychologists suggest there is a part in many of us that is broken and often hidden from the world, a part of us which we are afraid to reveal for fear of other people’s reactions. As children we have no qualms about crying or screaming if something is wrong, or throwing ourselves onto the floor and lying prostrate with fists pounding the carpet. Anyone seen this? Yes, well. Somewhere along the line, though, we are told to temper our responses with phrases like –  ‘don’t cry,’ ‘try to behave,’ ‘big girls/boys don’t shout.’

While this helps to create a society which is relatively restrained (most of the time), it also teaches us to suppress our fears or pain. It tells us that emotions should be dealt with quietly and privately, and not in public. It pushes us into corners where we have to wrestle and fight against feelings of fear, inadequacy, rejection, pain and even phobias. It’s not unlike snake charming gone awry. These are just a few of the murky areas of our lives which we have been taught to just sit on and ignore, in the hope that they will just vanish.

Why do readers need this in a story?

Why do we read books at all? For a vast majority it is a means of escape, a way of entering into an imaginary world where the rules have changed and events are happening to other people, events which stir up emotions in the reader and trigger memories of their own fears. We need to feel that we are not alone and books can provide an intense range of emotions in the reader. The level of which is down to the craftsmanship of the writer.

In a good novel we are taken on a journey with a roller coaster of emotions which vary in intensity throughout the pages. The journey can be frightening and it can be comforting, it call tell us that our fears are universal, it can navigate us through the choppy waters of disbelief, it can heal the deeper parts of our soul and can remind us that all of humanity lives with these bundles of hidden thoughts, and all in the safety and privacy of a collection of words, neatly bound in a cover without us having to leave the house or to communicate these fears.

How can we find the ideas?

As writers we have fears which need to be exploited to form a convincing plot, fears which will leave the reader turning page after page. Some of these fears begin in childhood, others might be more recent, but they are there and they need to be dug up, excavated and displayed in the pages of your books. Readers connect with writers who artfully pull at these strings – strings of challenge, of hopelessness, of a fear of change. Whatever the issues with your key characters, you need to delve into the murky waters surrounding an event and pull out the rawness of the emotions.

If there is no tension or emotion in your story it won’t fly.

Open up the corridors of your inner world and pull out all that lurks in the darkness. You will help your readers to relate to the characters and bring a believable plot to life.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

typewriter

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

What Makes a Page Turner

An interview with Maeve Binchy

This wonderful author was a favourite of mine as a young teenager. Maeve Binchy had a way of making me feel the characters emotions and kept me turning the pages until the very last one. I was almost surprised when I finished her book ‘Circle of Friends‘ as it was the first of her books that I had read and I couldn’t believe it had finished so soon. The experience was like a few hours with a great friend. You know when you cease to look at the clock, stop running though all the things you still need to do, and get so immersed in conversation that you have no idea where the time went? Well, that was what her books were like to me. There was a warmth in her writing and an understanding of people, and of life, which made me pick up and finish one book after the next. Every writer wants to emulate this in their books and every reader seeks this kind of book – a page turner. She shares her experiences.

So, what does she have to say about make a book a page turner?

Use your experiences – 

She emphasises the need for characters to do ordinary things, and draws on her experience of staying a hotel and not knowing whether or not to make the bed, as she had never stayed in a hotel before. Amazingly, many readers sent her letters to say that they had the same question. It seems basic, but finding every day situations that will help the reader to connect with a character and will add to the emotional connection is important.

People need to get to know the characters quite well –

Readers often feel the same way as a character in a given situation, and characters make mistakes. We all make mistakes and part of the reading experience, I think, is to have that ‘me too’ moment when you feel for the character because you have been in that situation or you are rooting for them and want things to work out. That is the mark of a good book.

Good doesn’t always triumph –

Good does not always win over evil in a book but it is important for the characters to make life as good as it can be. Maeve says that all her heroes always make life as good as possible in her books. You might have an antagonist who obviously choses a different route but it is important for the protagonist get to a point where they find the best of life.

Not every book needs to have an epic story line to be successful – 

Plot is important but a book does not need to be Lord of the Rings to succeed. Take a look at Fifty Shades of Grey! The key element of a book for readers and writers alike should be the characters and what they are striving for, or avoiding, or delaying. Whatever the purpose of their actions, their thoughts and actions need to be compelling.