Main Characters

October 20, 2013

Today’s Story Course comes from a lesson I learned from reading: why dialog and character interaction are so important to reader engagement.

Authors are (for the most part) more in love with their main characters than their readers are. This may seem obvious. Writers spend (mostly) years with their characters, discovering their world and writing in their voice and wandering through their story. You’d have to be considerably in love with them to devote that kind of time and attention to your main characters. But, while that’s a good thing and possibly somewhat necessary, let’s look at the consequences of it.

In the real world, when you’re in love with someone you love to hear them talk. You love to sit and listen and have conversations about the deepest matters and the most insignificant things and they’re all fascinating for you because you’re in love. And no one would fault you for that.

But to the person sitting in the room listening in, those conversations may or may not be interesting at all because the content is much more important to the observer than the person in love.

I think for a lot of authors, especially those writing YA and perhaps even more so those writing YA in first person, their writing is a lot of spending time with a character they’re a little bit in love with. Again, not necessarily a bad thing if one remembers that the audience is the person sitting in and listening.

Because a lot of the books I read spend so much time in the main character’s head. The exposition unfolds in the character’s thoughts. Large sections of text are devoted to description of the setting and the main character’s inner monologue as they examine that setting or think about the characters around them or ask themselves questions about what they’ve discovered. And unless you’re as in love with the main character as the author is, this is boring.

Which is what brings us to the lesson for the day.

When you add one other person to the scenario you change everything. Instead of being buried in the main character, give them a relationship. Let the exposition unfold in dialog instead of inner monologue! Let the other character’s have a different point of view on the plot. Let somebody ask questions the audience might and maybe let someone else give an answer. Have the relationships of the characters change and shift through this dialog as much as you move forward or uncover the plot in their conversation.

Because that conversation is (almost) always more interesting than the main character living the story alone.

Because the audience is (almost) never as in love with the main character as the author is.

Think about Harry Potter. The books may be titled “Harry Potter and…” but Harry is very rarely alone in the books. It’s been a while since I’ve read them, but as I recall he’s most often in a scene with someone else. Whether it’s Ron and/or Hermione (who are as much main characters as he is) or the exposition unfolding in conversations with Dumbledore there are always other characters right there in the thick of it with him from Hagrid to McGonagall and Snape and even Voldemort. J.K. Rowling created a huge cast of characters to surround Harry so he is rarely alone in experiencing the story and when he is, it isn’t for long.

I think perhaps Rowling was more in love with the story and the world than the character.

Twilight drowns in Bella’s internal monologue but the story is only, really, interesting when she’s with Edward or with Jacob or even Jasper or Alice and definitely when she’s talking to Charlie. The conversations are unequivocally more interesting than Bella’s thoughts. Perhaps because Stephenie Meyer was in love with Edward rather than Bella and so the story is more exciting when he’s there. or maybe that’s just me.

I learned this particular lesson after reading another book where I got bogged down in a huge section of the character’s inner monologue and thought, “This is boring! I don’t love this heroine as much as you do.” And I remembered the books I’ve enjoyed perhaps more than they warranted just because the secondary characters had a role to play and were involved in what was going on and there were conversations all over the place.

But perhaps this isn’t a universal lesson. My favorite part of a story is the relationships and character dynamics so interaction between the characters is always going to be more fun for me.

(p.s. my sister is rolling her eyes thinking, “I’ve been telling you this since the first draft of your first novel. When are you going to realize I’m always right?”)

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2 responses to “On Main Characters

  1. Annette

    True to point Annie! I also believe that we love a character and the story because of characteristic traits we wish we had,when we can relate to an experience that we have lived through, or that place where we envision we can escape from reality. I love authors who are more eloquent in their come backs when in conversation than I am. Where I read and laugh out loud and say, “Yeah! Good one!” or when something is so visually attune that I am mentally locked into that place. Sometimes it is about escaping into a world we will never live, and sometimes it is about having that kindred spirit with the character that connects us to a memory that we believe we share and we can hold on to. Which is why at the end of a really good book I can slip into a state of being morose that it is over. 🙂

    • Annie

      Yes! I think stories give us characters or experiences we aspire to. And I’m with you – I love authors who are more witty than I am 🙂