I just finished a book (which shall remain nameless) for my first Australian book club meeting and despite all its accolades and awards I couldn’t believe how totally uninvested I was in any of the characters. I’ve been mulling over the reasons for this ever since I skimmed my way to the finish yesterday and this morning I woke to find I knew exactly what the author’s problem was – she had failed to let her characters be defined by action.
In many ways this is a classic literary novel mistake because, lets face it, in a mystery or a thriller there’s no way an editor would let us get away with having passive characters who spent half their time engaged in inner monologues about how they felt!
We have blogged a lot on this topic but never has the reason been made so clear to me as it was after finishing this book. Although there were some dramatic moments and a terrific historical backdrop, none of these had any resonance as the characters seemed to be little more than distant, passive observers to all that was occurring in the book. So I compiled a short list for myself, as a reminder of what not to do, when I feel the literary urge coming on (and believe me, getting pseudo-literary is one of my many failings as a writer:)!)
1. Rein in those inner monologues and angst. While okay in small doses this book diluted the power of any angst-defining moments by having the main character ruminate ad nauseam. It would have been far better for the character to have been confronted by his past – in a direct and visceral way so the reader could have seen (rather than being told) how this impacted the character.
2. Cut the literary bull. Too much pondering, pretty metaphors and dream sequences drag a story down (and this book had enough of these to sink the Titanic). Far better to let the plot move the character through his or her emotions.
3. Let action/reactions tell the story not the author. In this book I felt that as a reader I was being told too much by the author – to the point where I didn’t see the characters as real. They became little more than a literary device for the author to tell me her clever observations on the societal issues of yesteryear (yikes!).
4. Insist the plot drive character development. As far as I could tell I didn’t witness any real character development or change, I was merely told that it had happened by the author.
5. Ensure each character is true to life not a literary contrivance. In this book almost all the character flaws were described but never actually witnessed. Once again, without action or plot points to reveal these I was never invested as a reader.
So if you had to do a list on using action to define characters what else would you add (or change on my list). Have you read any book recently that you have found similarly lacking? And why do authors of so-called literary books often forget the basics that we, in our field, would never be able to get away with?!