Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What I Look For In A Story - The Characters

I thought I would take some time this week and discuss what I look for in projects. As we discussed yesterday, there are a lot of factors we look at, many of which do not involve the actual story itself. But for the rest of this week, I want to focus strictly on the story elements.

Both editors and agents are frequently asked, either in interviews or on panel discussions, what we look for in a story. We often hear the same words time and time again. "I look for a story with a great premise, and great voice. I look for something that really speaks to me." Like, no duh! To understand this though, we have to really break down this answer into some smaller elements. This would be the storyline, the characters, the plot or premise of the story, and the writing style. We'll focus on each in the next coming days.

For me, I like to start with the characters. You have heard me say this time and time again here on the blog. Since romance and women's fiction deal with human emotions, feelings, relationships and so forth, the believability of the characters is crucial. These characters have to be 100% 3-dimensional. I don't care who they are, these characters have to be someone who the readers can connect to.

As we read the story, we want to be sucked into the world of the characters. We want to be with them on their journey and really feel as if they are our best friends. We want to talk about them like everyday people and not simply as characters in a book (even though they are). Shauna Summers of Bantam Dell and Ballantine said once at a conference that she wants characters so real that they are like her own neighbors.

To accomplish this, however, requires a skill in not forcing the characters to say and do things they wouldn't likely do in the real world. Regardless of their position, we would expect them to act and behave a certain way. If the hero is a lawyer, we would expect "lawyer behavior". If the character is a mother, we want motherly behavior.

The role of the characters in the story is also connected to the storyline and the premise. One thing for me that is a huge turn-off when it comes to stories are characters with so much baggage and drama in their life that it makes Erica Kain look like a normal person. If you think about it, the people that are fascinating around you were not coming from abusive homes, then in 3 divorces, and getting fired from jobs. In other words, when you create a motivation for your characters, you don't have to pile on the baggage. This becomes an issue for your readers. They might be able to relate to one of the issues the character is having to deal with, but when there are 5 issues, it is easy to disregard them.

In the end, the issue comes down to "keeping it real." The stronger the connection you can make with your reader, the better the chance they will be right with you the entire way.

Tomorrow. Premise and Plot.