A while ago I volunteered to judge for a writing contest. The first 500 words of a novel, to be precise. Most had fantastic ideas, most had decent hooks, some had good conflicts, a couple had great voices and most were clean as far as grammar and spelling go. However, I can say that every single one of them were lacking in (or completely lacked) one, very important thing.
The author hadn't given me a reason to invest my time or emotions into the characters.
Just how important is this?
Well, let's go back through my blog/ranting. What doesn't (usually) make a good beginning?
Starting in the middle of action.
Not letting the reader settle into the story.
Pacing that gives the reader whiplash.
A weak voice.
Now most of these can be salvaged, if the author gives the reader characters to care about.
The guy in a fight to the death can be interesting if we find out right up front that he is fighting to keep his daughter from being sold as a sex slave.
The cabin boy on the boat in the middle of a storm can't get swept overboard because he knows the secret of how to stop his now insane captain from raising a sea monster that will destroy the kingdom. Oh, and the captain is his father.
A vampire attacks a little girl, but one suck of blood and he realizes that she's poisoned him and now he's her slave. Just who is the bad guy here?
Stories are about change. And the most important arc of a story—as I've just recently been reminded of—is how the main character changes. They start out with a weakness that the reader picks up on near the beginning. The author takes the character through their own personal hell—sometimes kicking and screaming—until they realize that they need to change. They must change or they can't save the girl, save the world or even save themselves.
The best way to show a change is to show what things are like before anything new happens. This is another point where the stories I judges lacked. Not one of them took the time to show what a normal day looked like to the main character. It can take a few sentences to a few chapters, depending on your story, but this must be a part of the beginning of the book.
Vincent was your everyday, normal vampire—sucking blood, harassing the weak humans and partying with his rich buddies –until he makes the mistake of attacking that little girl who poisoned him. He had a feeling he shouldn't have done it, but she smelled soooo good. Now he has to decide if staying alive is important enough to bring down his own people, or if he will sacrifice his immortality to keep the vampire race from being wiped out.
If Vincent cares about the world around him before this, then the sacrifices he has to make won't be big enough to write a whole story about. If he doesn't care about his own skin then it doesn't matter when his new master sends him to kill the vampire leaders. Oh, and one of the leaders should be a relative he doesn't. That always makes things interesting.
Last year I went to a Comic Con panel titled “Why we love Joss Whedon.” The overwhelming response was that he creates awesome characters. Characters are why most readers keep reading. Give the reader enough about the characters to make them care. That is all.
What are some of your favorite characters and why?