I went through a reading crisis this year. Every time I sat down to lose myself in a book, I found my attention wandering after just a few pages. I would check my iPhone for messages, stop by Facebook, and then force myself to sit back down and try again. It drove me nuts. Losing myself in a good book has always been my way of taking a needed break from the world. I attributed my problem to a shrinking attention span brought about by cursed social media. I decided anything more than four paragraphs was beyond my interest, thanks to new media, and bemoaned the loss of my ability to enter the pages of other worlds. Needless to say, this did not enhance my participation in my book club or endear me to friends with new books coming out. “Yes, I bought it and can’t wait to read it.” [“God, please don’t ask me how I liked it three months from now.”]
Thus I sealed my fate and kissed reading a full-length book good-bye. And then I picked up “Death Comes to Pemberley” by PD James. I had no choice, really, as it was my book club’s December selection and I had pretty much disgraced myself with my inability to get into any of the books we’d chosen thus far in 2014. Now, since the Grand Master herself died the day I finished her book, perhaps I feel more comfortable saying what anyone who reads this book realizes by the end: this is a terrible mystery. The plot is tepid at best and the true killer revealed in groanable fashion. And yet, I loved every word of it and could not put the book down. Why? Because PD James did a stellar job of bringing Jane Austen’s characters back to life and giving us a peek at what happened to them after their tales had been told. PD James was impeccably loyal to their essential character, as envisioned by their original creator. Lizzie, Mr. Darcy, Jane, Bingley, even, alas, Lydia and Wickham, never uttered a word out of character or took an action that Austen herself might not have decreed. And while James built her tale around Pemberley and its grounds, she also brought in characters from many of Austen’s other books in peripheral ways. It was pure joy to discover that Walter Elliott and his snobbish eldest daughter were behaving, as ever, in utterly supercilious ways. It rang true that Emma was still telling poor Harriet Smith what to do. The characters were as real to me as ever. Even my outrage at how James handled the character of Colonel Fitzwilliams was assuaged at the end of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” when the motive for his somewhat out-of-character behavior was revealed.
In other words, it took characters created over 200 years ago for me to lose myself in a book again.
I could talk about how astonishing Jane Austin was at creating characters you felt as if you knew, and how skilled she was at revealing their dreams, or the unique ways they interacted with one another. But many people have praised her for these abilities before me and many have pointed out how universal her depictions of relationships remain. Instead, I would like to suggest that feeling connected to the characters in the books we read is at the heart of what keeps us turning the pages and returning to read more. It is especially what keeps us buying books in mystery series that are centered around the same protagonist and supporting cast. The best books in our genre, and those that sell millions of copies even when their plots may lack originality, are all built around characters we care about, identify with, and feel as if we know. Their ability to come to life is what draws us into a book. Caring about what happens to them is what inspires us to keep reading about them.
The lack of depth in character is also what makes us put books aside. With the confidence of a new writer and the cruelty of a closet cynic, I once publicly lampooned Patricia Cornwell for what she had done to Kay Scarpetta by turning her into everything from an expert helicopter pilot to irresistible sexpot to secret agent to deep sea diver and god knows what else. Gone was the soul-searching professional woman seeking respect and the truth. Here was a cartoon character who could leap tall mortuaries with a single bound and hypnotized men of all ages with her steely demeanor.
Plenty of books in the mystery genre make the same mistake of disconnecting their characters from what draws readers to them. Their authors concentrate on what the character can do, or how the world might label them, without ever looking at who they are within. They make their characters unbelievable or, worse, invincible.
The older and wiser among you reading this post will understand me when I say that flaws and foibles are what make other people interesting and most lovable. The same goes for characters in books. For them to be real, we need to know their lost hopes and dreams — we all have them — along with what they fear and how well they maintain their sense of self when interacting with uncooperative others. It is not enough to paint the exterior view. Readers must be able to know what is in their hearts to feel connected to characters. Everything else is just window dressing.
I think to be a truly brilliant writer you have to be connected to the world in exactly 7.2 billion ways: that’s the number of people currently sharing our planet. In other words, you must be utterly fascinated by other people and what drives them. You must care about them all, even the ones you do not know. You must be unable to turn away from the parade of life. You must be driven to be a part of it.
This is why writers who let fame isolate them so often lose what made them special in the first place. To be a good writer of characters, you must be in love with the entire world. You must be willing to be among those you cannot stand and unafraid to lose yourself in those you love. Out of that ether comes the stuff of imagination, the thousands of details and desires that will help you create characters that readers will care about.