Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Character Debate

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about character. In my mind, characters are what make or break a book, which is why books like DaVinci Code and Jurassic Park didn't really interest me. All plot, no character.

I was talking with my neighbor yesterday about TV shows, particularly those on HBO and Showtime. He said he could never get into Oz or The Sopranos (two of my favorites) because he couldn't stand any of the characters.

"They're all horrible people," he said. "They're murderers who cheat on their wives and exploit people. I didn't care if they lived or died."

While I disagree that Tony Soprano and the inmates at Oz have no redeeming qualities, it proves my point that characters are the key element in a book's success. Protagonists don't necessarily have to be all good, but they certainly cannot be all bad. In my mind, the characters who are somewhere in between are the ones that are the most interesting. But ultimately, readers have to care about the characters in order to enjoy the book.

So how do you do it? How do you create characters that are memorable, interesting, and most importantly, characters that readers will care about? Let's look at some of crime fiction's most beloved characters (or at least my favorites):

Sam Spade, created by Dashiell Hammett, was good looking, meticulous, and could always get the best of anybody. Granted he was shifty and sometimes cold, but he was charming, cocky and easily captivated readers. In that 007 kind of way, he was always acting in the interest of justice and did it without breaking a sweat.

Jack Reacher, created by Lee Child, could easily be considered one of the most popular series characters in contemporary crime fiction. Reacher is an ex-military cop with no home, no phone, no driver's license, no ties. Although he has killed many and broken a few hearts, Reacher is always working for the greater good. His idea of justice does not always coincide with that of the authorities and he always works on his own. If any man was an island, it would be Reacher. But under the tough, not to mention good-looking, exterior, he cares for people and has a passion for making things right.

Chili Palmer, created by Elmore Leonard, is the perfect example of a bad boy that's easy to root for. Palmer is loan shark and aspiring film producer who rolls with Miami's criminal underground. He's slick and smooth with eyes in the back of his head. Yes, he's a criminal, but he's a criminal with a conscience. The people he's extorting aren't good people; they're not innocent. His charm allows readers to overlook the criminal label and root for him throughout the book.

Harry Bosch, created by Michael Connelly, is a more controversial series character. I find that people either love him or hate him. This LAPD homicide cop is a maverick and sometimes too stereotypical as a detective. He drinks too much, works too much, and to him, each case is personal. But his passion for crime-solving carries over to the reader, and you can't help but root for him. His intelligence and determination make it possible to overlook his flaws.

John Rain, created by Barry Eisler, is another controversial protagonist as he is a Japanese assassin. He is a hit-man who specializes in making his victims appear as if they've died of natural causes. So how can he be a hero if he's a criminal? He has a code: he doesn't kill women or children, he doesn't kill non-principles, etc. Ultimately, this killer has a conscience, and like Reacher, he's smart, smooth and has minimal ties. Rain's code is what allows readers to overlook his hit-man occupation and his personality and charm is what makes them fall in love.

All of these characters are, in a sense, good people. This makes them relatable. They are all flawed, which makes them interesting. They work toward the greater good and want to deliver justice, which makes it easy to root for them. Most of them are charming and good looking, which always helps. Personally, I care about all of these protagonists when I'm reading them. I want them to succeed. If I didn't, I couldn't enjoy the book.

Feel free to comment on your favorite characters or give traits that are necessary for a character to be captivating.

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