Not long ago my cousin, Ellen, and I were talking (emailing, actually) about writing and she asked me why I write mysteries rather than “southern literature” since several of my favorite authors wrote in that genre – Walker Percy, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. I said that, first of all, I didn’t think I could write literature. I’m better at writing books with lots of dialogue, a fast pace, and not a lot of fluff. Or maybe I’m just not that perceptive. Secondly, I said that “Southern literature” is grounded in complex character development and is about deep emotional or behavioral aspects of their personalities. In this genre the emphasis is on how the characters react to what happens to them and how that reaction affects their families and, occasionally, the entire community in which they live. The novels I write are more about what the characters do than how they feel about what they do. Action, not emotion, drives the plot and controls the pace. The interest in the story comes from what the characters do, not what revelations they experience.
Of course, in reality, that’s not entirely true. Well, the part about me not being that perceptive may be true. But not the part about what holds the reader’s interest in the story. Regardless of the genre – mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. — it’s all about the characters. This is obviously the case with romance novels. But even a mystery with lots of surprises and twists and great sleuthing doesn’t keep you turning pages if the characters aren’t interesting. Horror simply isn’t compelling if you don’t care what happens to the characters. What makes a suspense thriller suspenseful is not the great scenes and fast-paced action. It’s the characters. As with horror, if you don’t care what happens to the characters then there is no suspense. There’s nothing thrilling about anything if you aren’t worried about the health and welfare of the characters.
So, how do you develop compelling characters that capture the reader’s interest? How much time do you spend on character development? How complex, how deep, do your characters need to be to carry the story? How do you ensure your characters “stay in character?” These are some of the topics I’ll cover in the upcoming articles.
Don’t overlook the importance of character development. That is the foundation, the key to writing a novel that captures and holds your reader’s interest.
We’ll build on that foundation in the next article on character development — “Get to know your characters…intimately.”