I recently finished the third book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (just over 1,000 pages long) and was looking forward to reading the next in the series, but my wife had just finished reading The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens and couldn’t wait to discuss it with me, so I put Martin on hold. The Fire Chronicle is the follow-up to The Emerald Atlas and is just as exciting and well-written. I read when I was able (my wife read it aloud to me while I was unable) and within a couple of days, the book was done (so our discussion could begin).
I’m looking forward to getting back to A Song of Ice and Fire, but since I’m already on a break (and the next installment is another 1,000 pages or so), I decided to try an author that I’ve never read before. The author is Patrick W. Carr, and I’m reading A Cast of Stones, the first in The Staff & The Sword series from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group (which owns Baker Book House (where I work)). I got the book free as one of my perks for working at the bookstore, and I really want it to be good, both because it will help the company who pays me and because it lends credibility to the genre in which I hope to publish.
Reading a new author is a lot like going on a blind date. You have no idea if you are going to be compatible or not, whether you will enjoy their stories, their voice, or how detail-oriented they might be. But if you love reading and are willing to put yourself out there every now and again, you might just find someone who you really like.
Of course, sometimes it takes a bit of time to get to know them. That’s how I feel right now. If reading were speed-dating, Patrick’s book and I would not be leaving together. The first chapter didn’t thrill me. I’m going to finish the book since I want to give it a real chance, but I want to focus on why we got off on the wrong foot.
In the first chapter, the main character is introduced by being thrown out of a bar. He is drunk before 10am. He a jealous man with internal problems. And that is fine. But he doesn’t start as a likeable guy. He seems more sad than anything. And as in dating, if your first impression of your blind date is that they are sad, jealous, and haunted by some horrible baggage, you probably looking for an excuse to leave early. But what do you do if the plot of your novel requires the reader to see the character before their redemptive transformation?
Having just come off the heels of George R. R. Martin and John Stephens, two authors who write incredibly likeable characters, I have some thoughts.
Likeability has little to do with good vs. evil
Martin handles this with ease. When first introduced, most of his characters are either starkly good or bad, but they are all intriguing. We like the good characters because they are innocent, upright, and inspiring. And we like the bad characters because they are mysterious, mischievous, and ultimately relatable. Often, we are curious where they went bad, because very few are wholly evil, just a bit twisted.
Transformation requires a shift in the reader’s perspective, not necessarily a shift in the character’s actions.
In The Fire Chronicle, Stephens re-introduces a character from the first in the series, but in a completely new light. We are given insight into the motivations of the character, rather than a change in any of the character’s actions. As readers, we better understand the “why” without changing the “who”.
Consider a different starting point.
If I’m not going to like the “before”, do you really want to lead with that? An unlikeable main character doesn’t make a good hook and the only people who are going to continue are either optimistic or stubborn. Maybe you should ask yourself if you can reveal your likeable character’s unlikeable past in another way. Perhaps a flashback, or a tale around a campfire, or anything other than a bad first impression.
These are only three ideas. If you have others, I’d love to hear them below. Now, off to give my own characters and stories the gimlet eye to make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes.