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Writing “real” people

I have a weakness for British mysteries. I like mysteries the same way I like crosswords, as puzzles to solve, and I'm something of an Anglophile, so the two in combination are hard for me to resist. Yesterday I bought a mystery by an author I had never read. The book was marked down to $2.99 but I still got the free sample first, because three bucks is not the same as free. The free sample had flashes of humor as well as a setting that was new to me, so I bought the book.

I won't name the author or the book, but I have since looked her up on Wikipedia and that solved another mystery. This story was engaging, but the writing was occasionally clunky. It turns out this author is one who cranks out three or four books a year. I'm not saying you can't write three or four good books in a year, but I am saying they are less likely to be polished if you do.

But one thing the author did well was character, especially because the main characters all had backgrounds that explained why they were the way they were. Sometimes main characters, in particular, suffer from what I call Athena Syndrome. In Greek Mythology, Athena burst forth from her father Zeus' head fully formed and armed to the teeth. That might work for a goddess, but every adult who ever lived started out as a child, and whatever that child's life was like exercised a profound influence on the adult he or she became.

I agree that a book has to have a plot to be readable, but if it doesn't have characters who are not only memorable but who come from somewhere (and not in the geographic sense), then that book is unlikely to make an impact on the reader. Real people have parents, sometimes siblings, and often extended family, too. Even if your protagonist is an orphan (the bane of YA fiction!), he or she needs to have some memory of childhood. Even if it's not actually in the story, the writer needs to know what the protagonist's childhood was like.

Plot might be the bones, but character is the flesh of the story. It's fine to write lean prose, but characterization is muscle that shouldn't be lost.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 28th, 2010 10:22 pm (UTC)
"Athena syndrome" is an excellent name for it :)
Nov. 29th, 2010 01:33 am (UTC)
Plot might be the bones, but character is the flesh of the story.

I love this! It's going on my corkboard of writerly wisdom.
Nov. 29th, 2010 02:37 am (UTC)
Thank you! And BTW, I finished FINDER. I liked the story. No Athena syndrome there!

The Kindle version had no formatting errors that I could see. There is no table of contents, but that's not unusual with novels. Every chapter started on a new "page" so that was good; the only thing that didn't work was the "next chapter" function where you can jump to the start of the next chapter, but I think that's dependent on a ToC.
Nov. 29th, 2010 03:14 am (UTC)
Ah, yes! The ToC. I don't think I had one. I suppose I could have!

I'm glad you liked the story, lovey. Thanks!
Nov. 29th, 2010 04:06 am (UTC)
is your corkboard a corkwall? i'm just curious. ;)
Nov. 29th, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)
A wisdomboard of writerly corkwallness!
Nov. 29th, 2010 04:07 am (UTC)
Athena Syndrome. Nice. I like to know WHY are character is. I think that is why in a series, I always like the book(s) with backstories.
Nov. 29th, 2010 04:09 am (UTC)
Yeah. It doesn't have to be overt or a big deal, but it helps if a character thinks about his past every now and then.
Nov. 29th, 2010 04:16 am (UTC)
I agree.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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