From time to time I see free books offered in one venue or another that obviously appeal to a limited audience. I try to imagine, for example, a teenage boy reading a book with lots of pink and lace on the cover or with a picture of an elderly couple, no matter how “with it” they might appear.
Covers, of course, can be overcome with favorable endorsements and other positive promotion, but to generate genuine buzz about a book, there needs to be a character with whom readers connect–a character with universal appeal.
Strangely enough, according to writing instructor Donald Maass in his latest book Writing 21st Century Fiction, creating a character that fits with what we think readers will like, is the wrong approach.
First, keep in mind that characters, like genres, follow trends.
In any literary era, there are trends in characterizations. Whole decades have been defined by characters who were blithe, survivors, or edgy. The evolution of young adult protagonists makes this particularly clear. In the first half of the 20th century, children from Horatio Alger to the Hardy Boys were plucky and alert with derring-do. In the 1970s, pervasive problem novels celebrated teen angst. More recently, the norm has become snarky detachment. (excerpt from Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 104)
The problem with such trends is that writers begin to follow what seems to be the yellow brick road to the land of publishing Oz. In other words, they join the pack and write a stereotypical character that fits the current trend, assuming that this is what readers, and editors, want.
Unfortunately those characters grow old quickly. There’s nothing memorable about them, nothing unique, and in the end, nothing universal. Readers, and before them, editors, will grow weary of these copy-cat characters.
Earlier this year, I discussed stereotypical characters in “Characters Can Be Cliches Too,” but Maass makes the point that in creating unique characters, writers are actually creating ones with universal appeal.
These characters do things that are not typical of people we know, but their emotions and motivations will be ones we recognize.
I recently read a young adult fantasy with a protagonist who was unique. She was the youngest daughter of a king and happy that she wasn’t heir to the throne. She was willful, interested mostly in keeping herself entertained with her friends, but fiercely loyal to her family. Consequently, when her sister lay dying, she started on a trek to find the one thing she believed would save her. Never mind that the king told her not to go. Never mind that she would be returning to a land where one of her friends had killed a young man and his brother had vowed revenge.
Whatever we may think of this character for doing what she did, she still touches on universal emotions. Who among us hasn’t felt helpless in the face of a governmental or parental or corporate restriction? Who among us hasn’t loved so deeply we would travel to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took to save the life of the one we loved?
Maass states the key succinctly:
The secret of standout characters is their uniqueness.
In other words, none of us should be trying to write the next Katniss or the next Harry Potter or the next Bilbo Baggins. We should aim to create a character like none we’ve ever read before.
Maass suggests writers start with our own uniqueness:
In a way, making a character different than any who’s existed before begins with making that character like you, only more so. The store of individuality at your disposal is your own incomparable self. Borrow it, but blow it up. Let yourself loose. The more singular you become on the page, the more your readers will see themselves there too.
I’ll admit, I have some reservations about this advice. I’ve read books before where I thought the main character was transparently patterned after the writer. In addition there’s the issue of writing book after book with a character just like … you, only blown up. It seems that approach would have its limitations.
Still, I think the principle is sound. In the same way that each one of us is a unique person, with our own DNA and blend of beliefs and experiences that shape us, each of our characters should be original creations as well.