Fantasy author Robin Hobb discusses what makes a story a keeper ...
Characterization is extremely important to me. From my earliest days as a reader, it is what I looked for in books. And when I became a writer, it was the skill I considered most important to develop.
The reason for that is, I think, one that is common to readers of all genres and mainstream. I think that when we read a book, we are looking for, not just an adventure, but a friend. Be it Mowgli or Spenser, Sherlock Holmes or Bilbo, Lord Darcy or Sam-I-Am, at the end of the book, I will remember the person who accompanied me through those pages. And it is that character that will prompt me to come back and read a book again, much more than a plot. Once I know the ending of a plot, the suspense is gone. But each time I read a well written book with good characterization, I get to know the characters a bit better. It is the comfort of those friendships that I will seek again when I am lonely or weary, and also when I am content and want to enjoy the simple pleasure of meeting up with an old friend.
So, how do you I write myself a friend? Well, much as writers hate to admit it, all our characters are composed of elements of ourselves combined with elements of people that we love (or hate, or ignore, or tolerate) in our real lives. Among my real life friends, there is not one that is perfect. So, this is also true of my characters. If I ever wrote a character who was kind, loyal, trustworthy, brave, wise, and the world’s greatest swordsman, I don’t think I’d like him much. There would simply be no place for me to get a fingerhold on him, either as a person I’d identify with or as someone that would want to be friends with someone like me. Now, if he is kind, loyal, trustworthy, wise, the world’s greatest swordsman ... and a terrible coward — well, then, suddenly I am interested! And I think he might be someone who would tolerate a flawed writer like myself as a friend.
But it’s not just the protagonist who should get the reader’s attention this way. When I write, I always try to remind myself that every character in my story, from my hero to the ‘bit actor’ who holds his horse for him, is actually the main character or protagonist of his or her own story. The side kick should not exist just to win the reader’s heart and then take an arrow and die tragically in chapter eight. That side kick should have ambitions and a life of his own, and it should include a heart-felt desire to survive chapter eight!
When I slip into a character’s point of view, be they evil or good, as a writer I must really be that character for the time I share his skin. I can’t merely tolerate him. I have to agree with him and sympathize with him for the hours that I am writing his thoughts. If I don’t he will be nothing but cardboard, a foil to make the hero look good and then vanish from the page forever. And that’s not what I want. I want a friend.
- Robin Hobb