5 Star Review: Characters

So what is 5 star review?  Well, this is where, as a reviewer, I let you know what makes me rate your book 5 stars – or not.  This week’s topic: characters.

Please note that some things that turn me off to your book as a reader/reviewer turn others on and vice versa.


Characters

There’s so much I could write about characters, so I picked just a few things.  Characters in books I rate 5 stars are likeable, evolving, and complex.  Characters are the “who” of the story.  We typically think of them as people, but animals, and even objects can be personified and become characters.

  1. You could describe an ant as hardworking and persistent.  You could write a story about how an ant overcame seemingly impossible odds to find food and feed its colony.
  2. You could write a story about a train that wants to take a trip off of the tracks – oh, wait…that’s called The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper.

But there needs to be someone or something that is the center of the story.  Someone that we can connect to as a reader.  Someone that is likeable.  This would be your POV (point of view) character.  The reader needs to be able to “feel” and “care” for the people telling the story.  Would you go to a random person’s wedding or high school graduation?  Do you cry when you read the obituary section in the newspaper?  If you have nothing invested in these people, then no…you don’t care.  The closer you become with the people, the more you are affected by what happens in “their” life.

I love You.  I hate You.  Either way, I care enough to notice you.

Now, don’t confuse “likeable” with good.  Sometimes the villain is more likeable than the hero – like Hannibal Lector vs Will Graham in Red Dragon by Thomas Harris or Megamind vs Metroman (yes, I know…a movie!).  Sometimes the hero is horribly flawed like Sherlock Holmes – socially inept.  Humpert Humpert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – pedophile.  And if you can make both the villain and the hero likeable, that’s even more awesome.

And likeable certainly does not mean perfect.  Think about it.  Would you want your best friend to be rich beyond belief, gorgeous, athletic, brilliant, and extremely lucky?  And why don’t we also make this person have a few supernatural powers and be the Chosen One.  No, I don’t think you want to be friends with Mary Sue.  Besides the obvious jealousy, readers have trouble relating to a character like that.  You have flaws, therefore your characters should have flaws.

And CLUMSY is not a big enough game changer of a flaw to be the only flaw.  Unless…you plan on your character tripping, smacking into the villain and the villain’s extended knife, which is perfectly positioned to plunge into the heat, and the character dies.  If that happens, I can say, “Man, I’d rather be ugly than clumsy.  At least no one ever died from being too ugly.”  Then, and only then will you get full points in the character department with an otherwise completely Mary Sue character.

The Story of Evolution

There are two types of characters:  those that change over the course of the novel (dynamic) and those that stay the same (stagnant).  Most novels have both characters.  The key to having dynamic characters is to make their evolution from the starting person to the end a very believable transition.  The change in the characters need to be proportional to the situation for it to be believable.  You can either have a lot of minor events that contribute to the change or you can have one major event that triggers a change.

Character trait:  Character is a loyal wife.  Then she has an affair.

  • Believable:  Scene after scene we have the wife doing things without her husband.  He spends no time with her and she grows increasingly lonely, until she meets someone to fill the void – a neighbor.
  • Not-believable:  Husband forgot take out trash.  Wife screws her neighbor when she sees him at his trash can next door.

Character trait:  Character used to love spending all her time with animals.  Not anymore.

  • Believable:  Character quits veterinarian job after own pet dies and there was nothing she could do to save Fluffy.  Every animal she sees reminds her of her dead dog and she can’t bear it.
  • Not-believable:  Character quits veterinarian job because ants have invaded her kitchen and THIS MEANS WAR!  Every animal is a potential enemy now.

A thousand faces

Do you act the same way in front of your parents or your boss as you do your friends?  Your lover?  If the answer is yes, then please find the nearest exit and “get a life”.  teenagers especially treat different people differently.  They might be more joking around their friends.  Quieter around someone they like.  And more conservative (both in dress and speech) in front of their parents.  There might be conflicting information for the reader.

Example:  Suzy tells John that she can’t stand Bobby, but Suzy then tells Bobby that she likes hanging around him.

What does this mean?  It means that either Suzy is hiding her true feelings from John about Bobby or Suzy is hiding her true feelings from Bobby about himself.  To one of these guys, Suzy is honest.  To the other guy, Suzy is a liar.  She is still one person, but has conflicting character traits.  She is complex and that’s how I like my characters.

Readers:  What do you think makes a character likeable?

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Writing Tip #2: What’s for dinner?

Reading a great book is an experience to remember.

Just like enjoying a meal at a restaurant with loved ones.  The process to get customers, wow them, and keep them is the same.

Another sign on the road:

 

First impressions of a restaurant often dictate whether or not you will eat there.  A lot of it begins even before you step in the door.  First off is sales.  More people will visit a restaurant if the parking lot is full rather than empty.  Likewise, if a book is on the Bestseller list more people will check out the book.  The way to get sales is to advertise.  For authors that means to promote your book on blogs, in giveaways, and through word of mouth.  I own City of Bones by Cassandra Claire because I saw it on my friend’s coffee table.  Likewise, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi is in my Amazon cart after reading great reviews on several blogs I visit.  I can’t even remember what it is about but I’m psyched to start reading it.

Price:

 

A free book or a 99 cent book gives your readers the expectation of dining at McDonalds.  A $2.99 or $3.99 book is like a dinner buffet.  A $9.99 book is a gourmet meal.  If you can’t live up to expectations of a high-end dinner, charge less.  If you’re not charging enough, than you’re losing profits and attracting the wrong crowd.

Atmosphere:

 

Once you get customers in the door, you need to keep them.  If the place is in disrepair or dingy, then people will walk back out.  A book cover needs to look professional.  Don’t skimp.  If it looks like it came straight from MS Paint, than people will assume you spent just as much effort on the inside.  Dirt and roaches can ruin the best restaurant.  Hire an exterminator.  If a customer sees even one bug crawl across the floor, he will not return.  In books, we know roaches as ‘grammatical errors’.  Spelling mistakes, typos, and comma misuse distracts from the story and makes even a well-plotted book appear amateur.  Hire an editor or someone fluent in the rules of grammar to revise your book before publishing.

Waiter/waitress:

This is your main character.  He will guide us through the entire book keeping our drinks full and our food coming.  Your waiter has to be likeable, but not perfect.  A Mary Sue waitress is one that hovers over you and won’t give you any breathing room.  You’re (hopefully) not the only customer and they have to give you less than 100% of their attention.  Your characters, likewise, can’t be without faults.  They need to fail at some point, reminding you that your main character is just another human being.  A great waiter can overcompensate for minor problems in the restaurant.  A horrible waiter makes you nitpick every detail.  The drinks you order at dinner are the minor characters.  A one-dimensional character is like a flat soda.  The reader will be repulsed by every sip/mention of this character.  The waiter also manages pacing: order, drinks, appetizer, dinner, and desert.  Too fast pacing would be having the appetizer and dinner out at the same time or too soon after.  The guests are overwhelmed.  Too slow and the guests starve and consider going somewhere else.

Food:

The food is your plot.  The guests know what sort of food you serve (genre) and they place an order based on a one or two line description and maybe a picture.  This is your first chapter.  This is the text that appears in the Click to LOOK INSIDE on Amazon.  You need this to be so appealing that your readers are drooling to taste the rest of your book.  The appetizer is your first quarter of the book, the beginning, where things start getting hairy for your main character.  Eating the dinner is the climax, but you need to build to it.  You can’t serve it too soon after the appetizer.  You need time to let the appetizer digest and the guest has the opportunity to converse with love ones and the waiter.  To get comfortable with the world you built.  You should drop hints of what is to come.  Let the guest see the delicious plates of food served to the other tables.  Make his mouth water in anticipation.  When the dinner finally arrives, make sure it lives up to expectations.  No burnt food.  Don’t over or under season.  If a guest wanted a well-done steak, make sure it isn’t bloody.  This is genre expectations.  Horror is suppose to horrify.  Romance is suppose to romance.  And erotica is suppose to – well, let’s keep this PG.

Dessert:

 

And this is your ending.  Make sure that you tie up most of the loose ends to your plot.  If you are planning a sequel, leave enough open so that your readers can guess the basic plot of the next book.  Don’t do cliffhangers.  That’s like saying we’re out of fudge sundaes.