Characters: The Driving Force Behind Every Good Book

Ask writers what the most important element of any story is and you'll get a number of answers. Plot, characters, setting, conflict. There is no right or wrong answer, of course. These elements must all work together to form a story that draws the reader in and keeps them there until the final word.

Ask readers what the number one reason they cast a book aside uncompleted is and they will give you some variance of "I just didn't care what happened." This might point to boredom with the plot, the setting or the conflict, but I think it just may point to characters as the thing that makes or breaks a book the quickest.

As a reader and a writer, I find that characters are what keeps me engrossed in a book or makes me throw it down. A book can start in the most interesting, exciting way, with a scene that hooks me from the first word, but if I don't like the main characters or don't care enough about them, it won't matter.

With the right characters, a walk down the street can be amazingly interesting. With the wrong characters, saving the world from giant mutant ninja ghosts from space is a yawn fest.

Join a writers group and you're bound to hear comments about how this or that bestselling author has no writing ability, breaks all the rules, still has typos in their books, etc. You'll eventually hear how this or that bestseller sounds like it was written by a third grader or some other such nonsense.

In my opinion, these disgruntled authors are missing an opportunity all writers should take advantage of: the opportunity to figure out what draws readers to a book, what keeps them there, and what leaves a lasting impression on their hearts and minds.

Twilight is one of the books I've heard the most writers complain about and the most readers praise. What did the readers see that the writers overlooked? My guess would be the importance of characterization. In the very first book of the series, Bella, Edward, Jacob and every other character in Forks became real to readers and stayed real to them through the last book of the series. This was true even before the movies gave them a face. Good characterization doesn't need a real face put to the person, it leaves that up to the reader. It isn't as much about the physical aspects as the "character" itself. That is what stays inside the reader long after the book has been put back on the shelf. That is  what connects them to a book like nothing else will. Every conflict, every plot line, and every setting should help define your characters.

Years ago, I devoured Danielle Steele, who has also been the target of a disgruntled writer or two. What I remember from those books is not the writing. I would be hard pressed to tell you the titles right off the top of my head. What I remember is the characters and the dilemmas that helped define them.

Little Women, my favorite classic, has very little action or conflict by today's standards, but the characters are so well drawn, so real and touchable, they have lived on in my heart, and the hearts of thousands of other girls and women for more than a century. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. If you ever need a lesson on characterization, they are a good place to start. From the first page to the last, their characters drive every other element of the book.

Not long ago, someone told me I should write a sequel to Flowers for Megan. It wasn't the first time someone told me that and it continues to surprise me every time I hear it. When I wrote "the end", the book was over for me, but apparently people who read it want more of the characters. They want to know what happened to them after "the end", and that is a compliment. I don't foresee a sequel in the future, but you never know. The rights just reverted back to me and I am working on getting it ready for submission elsewhere. I can't swear an opportunity and an idea for a sequel won't pop up during my revisions. After all, one thing I've learned over the years is this:  My characters have a mind of their own and sometimes the best thing to do is let them take the wheel and steer.