Good plot. Immersing detail. Popular genre. Quick tempo. All the trappings of a worthy read…right? While these qualities in a book might draw you in, and keep you there for a spell, nothing, in my humble view, detaches the reader quicker than hollow characters. I’ve read the reviews (not on mine thankfully…yet). “Cardboard, one-dimensional, flat, undeveloped, unrealistic…” The list goes on.
Unrealistic? Now this description captures my attention the most, because it reminds me of something Stephen King said about writing good stories. I am paraphrasing at my worst, but he said something to the effect that an interesting story pits normal people against extraordinary circumstances, not extraordinary people against normal situations. Realism defined? I don’t know, but I like reading stories about characters that have to struggle to overcome an extraordinary problem. Is James Bond one of these characters? At first you’d probably say “no way!” I might agree, but I’d argue that he is an extraordinary person pitted against insanely extraordinary circumstances. It’s the same formula, just presented in a higher octane fashion, which is why it works…more so in the recent Bond films.
Ever read a book where the protagonist is an unstoppable, unbeatable hero? Mentally or physically? It’s fun for a while, but falls flat very quickly, because ultimately, there is no real drama. You know the protagonist will come out on top. It might be fun getting there, but on some level I get bored…really quickly. If the protagonist’s success is in question, or he/she takes a beating along the way…even though I still suspect, or know it’ll turn out alright, I’m pulled along.
Another aspect of a realistic protagonist is their moral stance. I think a little moral complexity is critical for a realistic character. We don’t all help old ladies cross the street…sometimes we’re in a hurry and don’t want to stand two more places back at Starbucks. Sorry. Moral complexity can vary across the spectrum, which can become confusing, so traditionally, we think of categorization in terms of good vs. evil, or some form of this. It’s a simple recipe for conflict, which usually drives a story along.
In my first novel, The Jakarta Pandemic, the moral ambiguity was a little hazy. The structural “good guys vs. bad guys” dichotomy was fairly simple to process, and I’ve received little feedback to suggest otherwise. However, since the book’s release, I still eagerly wait to hear from the camp of people who think that Alex Fletcher was a terrible person, and could not associate with them at all. I built a subtle stage for this into the story (maybe not so subtle), and so far, nobody has walked up onto it for a solid rant against them.
My next story won’t be so easy for most of you. Although most of you will like the protagonist from the start, and turn the last page with the same sentiment intact (mostly)…the ride may leave you with an uneasy feeling. You might find yourself not so eagerly clinking champagne glasses with this character, as you sail away into the sunset.