As I write this, the last Harry Potter movie just opened. Harry Potter has made writer Jo Rowlings one of the richest people in the world, and deservedly so.
But why? People have written novels about kids going to magic schools before. Many of the plots are similar to standard fantasy fare, and in some cases even quite predictable. What did she do to make it all work so well?
It boils down to something successful authors understand: A story is not about what it’s about — it’s about the characters.
We go back to the books (and movies) we love not because of the idea behind the story, but because of the characters.
When ARCH ENEMIES came out (my first novel) the comments that pleased me most were from readers who talked about how much they liked Terin or Darlissa — how they related to them, and saw how they changed during the course of the story. This was something I specifically set out to accomplish: not just to create believable characters who didn’t act cliche, but also to remember that no matter how clever my plotline was, no matter how surprising my twist ending, it would mean nothing if the reader didn’t care about the characters.
At writers’ conferences and writing groups I’ve attended over the years, I’ve listened to and read works by aspiring authors that I know will never make it unless they realize this point. They have stories about monsters and gadgets and world-shaking events and the characters are secondary. The cleverest idea in the world won’t matter if no one cares what happens to your boring, uninteresting, or cliched hero.
Seriously, think about books you may have stopped reading because you became bored. Think about all those special effects movies that you watch once and never want to see again. I am willing to bet that there is one thing these have in common, and that is uninteresting characters.
I could go on and on — Entire books have been written about how to create believable characters in fiction, but it all boils down to you, the writer, remembering that the characters are the most important element of your story.
So create those characters that are larger than life. They should say clever things, perform amazing acts of bravery, never give up. They should be people we want to read about. (See my last blog on this subject!)
At the same time, they should have definite weaknesses. They should make mistakes, lose their temper, and act like real people act. They don’t have to be likable, just interesting! Sherlock Holmes has many character flaws, but he’s a fascinating character, isn’t he?
Note that I am not limiting this to your protagonist. Too often, writers create a likable good guy hero and then place that person against a “bad guy” who apparently exists only to do bad things. Instead, you should remember that your antagonist is the protagonist in his or her own story. Unless that character is insane in some way, they do not consider themselves evil. Think through their motivations, and give them good attributes to prevent them from being cliched and predictable. (This is a good subject for a future blog, because I could write much more on this topic!)
Just always remember: Your story is about characters.