Character connections

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I haven’t had much time lately for either reading or writing – I’ve quit one job with long hours and low pay, and got a better one with less work, more money, and a better doughnut quotient. Hence lack of blog, complete lack of any writing, and hardly any reading.

One book I have been reading, though, has made me think about connecting with characters – both the connection between the character and the reader, and between the characters in the book.

I was really looking forward to reading this book: it seemed like a really interesting premise. The main character is a prostitute in a sort of alternative steampunk 19th-century America, and – as was pointed out in another blog – that’s the kind of character who generally exists as wallpaper. Prostitutes tend to either get walk-on roles for local colour, or get killed. They don’t really appear in many books as characters in their own right (although there are some: J.D. Robb’s Charles Monroe, a male “licensed companion” in her Dallas books, for one). So I was looking forward to reading one as a main character. When I got into the book, I also discovered that she was a lesbian. Also unusual – although getting less so nowadays – unless you deliberately go looking.

However, I didn’t find myself getting really into the story, to the extent that I kept putting it down. I still haven’t finished it – I moved on to reading something else instead. Now, when a book really grabs me, I tend to devour it in one sitting (with an ebook reader, eating isn’t an obstacle at all, and sleeping takes second place). But not this one: it just didn’t grab me. So I wondered why not.

Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care enough about the main character to keep reading. I just didn’t feel that connection to her. To take an example at the opposite end of the scale, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books are one-sitting reads. I also have them all as audiobooks. Harry Dresden can be a bit annoying at times, but I do kind of like him. Even if I sometimes want to smack him, I care what happens to him. He’s also an interesting enough narrator that he keeps the story going at a cracking pace (Butcher’s habit of ending every chapter on a cliffhanger probably doesn’t hurt, either). Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books also have protagonists that keep me reading: the world-weary and wounded Cazaril in Curse of Chalion and the embittered Ista in Paladin of Souls.

If I look at the protagonists who did make me care, they are not limited by gender, age, or sexual orientation. Harry is – at the beginning of the series – a young, male, white heterosexual wizard. Ista is in her forties, a white widow and mother. In Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, the main character (Peter Grant) is young, male, heterosexual and mixed race. Vanyel in Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage books was white, very young, gay, and male. I didn’t particularly like him, but he was a compelling enough protagonist for me to read all three books straight, one after the other.

So why didn’t the character in the book I haven’t finished grab me? Thinking about it, I think it was because the author just didn’t tell me – or show me – enough about her to let me get to know her as a person. I know she’s a prostitute because it was pretty much the only career option open to her, but I don’t know how she really feels about it. I don’t know what the life involves. I know she’s a lesbian (or bisexual), but I don’t know whether the girl she falls in love with in the book is her first, or whether she’s always been attracted to girls. I don’t know whether homosexuality is acceptable in her world, or whether she’s taking a big risk if she lets her sexuality be known. She’s sixteen in the book, but to me she came across as older – in her twenties, at least. Is that because of the life she’s led, or is it just that the author didn’t make her voice young enough?

It’s one thing to make a character’s background mysterious, or to drip-feed the details to the reader to avoid an information-dump, but if you go too far the other way, you risk not giving the reader enough information about the character to make the reader care. A major way of letting the reader get to know the character seems to be to let the reader know what the character is thinking; after all, if you’re inside someone’s head, you’re going to get to know them pretty quick. However, if you can’t do that, another way is to show the reader how the character interacts with the other characters in the book. In the book I’m reading at the moment, there’s a lot of action, but not a great deal of people just interacting on a day-to-day basis: “Look out! He’s got a gun!” really doesn’t tell you much about anyone. However, “Hey, he’s got a Purdey side-by-side – get a load of that!” conveys a lot more (principally that the speaker can identify a Purdey side-by-side, assumes the listener knows what one is, and thinks that a Purdey side-by-side is the shotgun equivalent of Colin Firth. And how the other character responds tells you even more: “Yeah, whatever,” or “What? Where? Get out of the way and let me look!”

And if I don’t know much about a character, I can’t connect to them, and I’m not going to care what happens to them enough to spend precious minutes of my life reading about it. I’m going to do something I care about more, like the washing up, or the ironing.

So I’ll go back to the book – eventually. It’s got enough of my interest that I’ll devote a few more minutes to it. Just… not right now. And, having been disappointed once, I’m less likely to read any more of that author’s work in future.

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