I really like those USA television promos with the little "Characters Welcome" slogan. USA gets it. Good television shows don't do well because every single script is perfect. Even the best shows have bad episodes (except maybe Psych. Never saw a bad episode of Psych--but even that is because Shawn and Gus make me snortle). While good plots are very important, what really keeps people watching is the characters.
Plots are important, but I think characters are even more important. If you have a wonderful plot with amazing twists and turns, I'm probably not going to care too much about it unless you also have some amazing characters to experience that plot. I'm not going to relate to anything in the story unless I can relate to the characters. That relating can mean I understand where they're coming from and what they're dealing with because I've been there, or it can mean I want to know WHY they're acting the way they do in a certain situation, or it can mean I want to be more like them. However I relate to a character, I'm going to keep reading to figure out what's going to happen because I've made an emotional investment in the characters.
I'm looking back on some of my favorite fictional characters. At the top of the list is Meg Murray from "A Wrinkle in Time" and the other books in that series. I get her. In a lot of ways, I am her. I'm that awkward kid who gets frustrated with herself and others way too easily. I'm constantly struggling with the idea that I am not good enough, trying to balance it with the idea that I've been made in the image of God. Madeleine L'Engle struck gold when she found Meg. I know a lot of people who have said that they're just like her. If she can overcome the odds she had to face, then so can we. That's good writing.
Then there's my second favorite fictional character, Samwise Gamgee from LOTR. To me, this little hobbit is the embodiment of loyalty. He wouldn't leave Frodo. When he couldn't carry Frodo's burden, he carried him. I relate to Sam because I think I am a lot like him, but I want to be even more like him. I want to be that fiercely loyal friend. My emotional investment to him caused me to weep like a baby when I got to the end of the books and realized he would have to be separated from Frodo. It makes me a little teary eyed to think of it even now.
My third favorite fictional character is also someone I wish I could be more like. Lucy Pevensie from "The Chronicles of Narnia." I wish I could be as childlike as she is. Every time she has to leave Aslan, especially at the end of "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," I also get weepy.
Another of my favorite characters is Taran from "The Chronicles of Prydain." He's a boy and he's a little harder to understand than some of the other characters I love. I do understand him some. I do want to be like him in some ways (good characterization is usually pretty multifaceted). I also wonder what he's going to do next because I don't always understand why he acts the way he does. I want to see if he attains his dreams. I want to see if he gets the girl. I want to see what he learns through his journies.
It's the same sort of feeling I get when I read Harry Potter. I don't get why Harry acts the way he does. I don't know why he gets himself into certain predicaments, but it's interesting to see how he gets out of them. I want to see what happens to him. J. K. Rowling is very good at weaving elements through stories. Something that seems insignificant somewhere might be the very thing that ties everything else together. I like her writing, but it wouldn't be very good if she didn't also have all these amazing and interesting characters.
I've been thinking about my own characters. There's a few that are very much like me, and these have been the easiest for me to write. But right now I'm starting a new story and I think the main character is a lot like me, only I'm having a lot of trouble with her. I think the reason is because she's a lot like who I was when I was a teenager, only perhaps a little more down to earth (she has had more disappointment in life than I had ever had at that point in my life). She's closed. She doesn't let people in easily. I'm trying to write her, but she doesn't want to let me in enough to let me see how to write her. She has the potential to be someone amazing, and I want to show her that. Right now, though, she's uncomfortably awkward (I've finally become very comfortable with my awkwardness--read my socially awkward blog). She has one friend. She doesn't trust people. She's angry and bitter and extremely moody. She has a lot of good qualities, too, of course, but it's harder to see them because she doesn't like to show them.
I adore her, but she doesn't want to let me write her.
I know that sounds weird. I can't help the way I relate to my characters. Ever since a character named "Rain" entered my life and demanded that I write her the way she IS instead of the way I wanted her to be, I've been treating my characters with a lot more respect. If I expect them to live, then they're more likely to live.
But Rain didn't take over (and quite literally possess me for two weeks) immediately. I dreamt her up and thought she was someone quite weak and unimportant until one day she just spoke up and proclaimed her strength and vitality. Maybe it's the same thing with this other character. Maybe I need to give her some time.
I hope it doesn't take too long. I've got a plot (weak as it is at the moment), but without her and another character (who I am also having just a little bit of trouble with), the plot is pretty much useless. I want people to invest in her and my other characters. I want to make people care about what happens to her. At the moment, I don't think she WANTS other people to care. So that's where the conflict is. Sigh.
I think it's time to write letters to my characters again.