An American Editor

April 4, 2011

Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?

In past book reviews of fiction (my On Books series), I have noted whether the author’s characterizations, particularly of the lead character, have emotionally involved me as a reader. Did it really matter to me what happened to a character? Was I moved to react to a character’s fortune or misfortune?

Those who read my most recent review (On Books: Murder Down Under), will recall that I distinguished the 5-star ratings I gave to the murder mysteries written by Vicki Tyley from the historical fiction novels written by Shayne Parkinson by this very criterion. The result was that although both authors deserved a 5-star rating, Parkinson actually deserved a higher 5-star rating (what I called “plus a smidgen more”) because of how Parkinson got me (and my wife and friends of ours who read the books on our recommendation) emotionally involved.

Consequently, the questions are: How important is reader involvement, and if important, how do you rate for it or for the lack of it?

At a personal level, I think how well an author creates a link between the reader and the author’s characters is an indication of the craftsmanship of the author. An indifferent character leads to an indifferent book. It may still be a good read, but it won’t be a memorable read. If you are in my age bracket (old and getting older by the minute), you are likely to have read thousands of novels in your lifetime, and it is novels on which we are focused. Of those thousands, how many characters can you remember? How many can you identify by name, description, and traits?

Storylines and plots are much easier to remember, largely, I think, because there seems to be a finite number of storylines and plots. Authors simply recycle them using different environments. For example, how many novels, when stripped to their core, are really remakes of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey? How many are variations on the theme of My Fair Lady? How many romance novels don’t have bodice ripping, girl meets boy and heart thumps, boy meets girl and becomes an Arthurian knight, and similar plots? How many murder mysteries don’t have at least one dead body and a nonpolice officer as the hero or a police officer as a hero but with a civilian sidekick? Familiarity with the broad scenario makes remembering a book on a broad basis relatively easy compared to remembering a character.

Think about characterization. How many of us remember Scout and Atticus Finch, but not the specifics of the plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? How many of us remember the characters in Leon Uris’s Exodus or who the lawyer-heroes were in John Grisham’s The Firm?

To me, feeling empathy/sympathy for the lead characters is important – because it keeps my interest in future books and makes me remember the author. I see that as the single characteristic that distinguishes between an average writer and an exceptional writer. It is not that the average/mediocre book cannot be a great read; it is that the average/mediocre book is an enjoy-today-then-throwaway-and-forget book, whereas books that involve my emotions compel me to read every book written by the author, especially those that include the characters that have moved me. In contrast, when an author’s characters do not move me, I may well buy and read everything by the author that is currently available because they are good read-once-and-toss buys, but am likely to forget about the author when I have to wait a year or two for the author’s next book to come out.

Two good examples of why I think creation of a link between the reader and the author’s characters is important — especially for the author — are traditionally published David Weber’s science fiction books, which are built around the character Honor Harrington and her universe of family and friends, and indie author Richard S. Tuttle’s fantasy books.

My discovery of the first Harrington book (On Basilisk Station, free at the Baen Library) hooked me. Honor Harrington became a character I cared about. I not only have bought and read every book in the series (12 so far that directly involve Harrington and more than 6 others that are from her universe) and preordered those to come, but Weber got me to spend money on buying books that I have never bought before because I do not like the genre: short story anthologies. I studiously avoid short stories, whether as part of an anthology or standalone, except those that relate to the Harrington universe and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep world (she has one free short story available, All I Want). In addition, because of the Harrington books, I also bought and became hooked on Weber’s newer Safehold series (which began with Off Armageddon Reef).

Perhaps more important for authors in today’s indie age, is my experience with the fantasy books of Richard Tuttle. He has authored 27 ebooks and I have purchased and read every one because his characters involved me. (His Young Lord of Khadora, Book 1 of Forgotten Legacy is a free ebook.) I admit that the characterizations did not remain equally compelling over 27 books, but they remained compelling enough to induce me to look for and buy every fantasy ebook Tuttle has written. Isn’t this what every author wants — readers who make a special effort to look for and buy their books?

Importantly, unlike the average/mediocre books that are good reads but not compelling enough to remember, for those authors who entwine me with their characters, every couple of months I search to see if there is another book scheduled for publication that I can preorder. If I can’t preorder it, I make a note in my calendar to remind me to check again for preorder availability. Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep series is a good example. Parkinson was supposed to have another book available in her Promises to Keep series but it is still being worked on. Yet I keep looking for it, a good year after I finished the quartet and the short story. Similarly, it took 1.5 years before I found new ebooks by Richard Tuttle, but I kept looking, and I have calendared to preorder forthcoming Weber books. 

Even more importantly to the authors, these are the books that I keep recommending to other readers. Which novels that you have read do you keep recommending months, if not years, after you have read them? Think about why.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that crafting characters that make readers react to them, to events that occur in their fictional lives, and to the world around them is profoundly important to both readers and authors. I am also increasingly convinced that the ability to craft such characters and worlds is what distinguishes the memorable author from the average/mediocre author. And, finally, with the single exception of editorial quality (i.e., few grammar and spelling errors to distract the reader), whether the author crafted characters and worlds that involve the reader at the emotional level is the most important criterion a reader can apply when evaluating and rating a novel.

What do you think?

March 30, 2011

On Books: Murder Down Under

My reading habits seem to me to be odd. Why odd? Because I read genres in spurts. The spurts may be months or years, but I haven’t read a genre continuously throughout my reading life.

What I mean is this: Many years ago, the only fiction I read were mysteries written by authors like Ed McBain, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Martha Grimes, P.D. James, Mickey Spillane, and Arthur Conan Doyle. I read those books for years, then one day I stopped and moved to another genre and didn’t pick up another mystery — that is, until recently.

Several months ago I bought the ebook of Vicki Tyley’s Thin Blood at Smashwords. The synopsis looked interesting, and several people on another forum remarked positively on the ebook. I thought I couldn’t go wrong at the price. Even if I didn’t like the book, it wasn’t much of an investment.

Thin Blood, which is the story of a reporter’s investigation of a decade-old murder, reignited my interest in the mystery genre. Thin Blood is a compelling story with a twist, and Tyley keeps the reader’s interest with her articulate prose. The writing style reminded me very much of the Ed McBain/Dashiell Hammett style — sentences that have been stripped down to the barebones.

After reading Thin Blood, I had to read the other mysteries written by Tyley, Sleight Malice and Brittle Shadows. In Sleight Malice, the lead character is devastated by what she thinks is the death in a house fire of her best friend. Then she learns that the body found in the fire is male, not female, and she teams up with a private investigator to discover the truth.

In Brittle Shadows, the body of our heroine’s sister’s fiance is found hanging in his closet, presumably death by accident. Two months later, the heroine’s sister commits suicide, an act that our heroine cannot accept, especially when she learns that at the time of her death, the sister was 6 weeks pregnant.

Each of the three books is different, yet all are united by a single characteristic: strong, female leads. Tyley’s characterizations allow the reader to grasp the mental framework of the lead females. The writing is taut, direct, and without waste. Throughout the three books, there were only a couple minor grammar errors, at least from an American perspective. I admit that I am not familiar with Australian style.

What I find particularly interesting is that even with the very high quality of the writing, Vicki Tyley, as is the case with the exceptionally talented New Zealand writer, Shayne Parkinson (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet), remains unsigned by the major traditional publishing houses. Makes me wonder if there is a Down Under bias.

There is no question in my mind that Vicki Tyley is the Australian P.D. James — a writer whose work is a can’t miss read. The writing is outstanding, the stories creative. The one failing is that her female leads are frenetic. Interestingly, although the female leads are as strong a character as any of the males in the story, and often even stronger, they do not comport themselves as well as their male counterparts in stress situations, leaving the impression that they are weaker than their male counterparts. It is almost as if Tyley is suggesting that no matter how strong a woman is, she is still emotionally ruled whereas men are both strong and emotionless, or at least better capable of contolling their emotions and thus more objective under stress.

The significant difference between the Parkinson books and the Tyley books is how the lead female characters — Amy Leith, in the Parkinson books, and Jemma Dalton (Brittle Shadows), Desley James (Sleight Malice), and Jacinta Deller (Thin Blood) — emotionally involve the reader in their story and plight: In the case of Amy Leith, I was greatly engaged, whereas the Tyley characters didn’t rise to that level of reader involvement. My emotional involvement was minimal at best.

That, however, is no reason to not buy, read, and enjoy these books and to anxiously await the next Tyley Down Under murder mystery. On a 5-star rating scale, I would rate each of Tyley’s 3 books as 5 stars. In comparison, for those of you who took my advice and read Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet, the quartet’s rating would be 5 stars plus a smidgen more, the difference being the emotional involvement of the reader with the characters.

As I wrote earlier, Vicki Tyley is the Australian P.D. James — a can’t miss read. Her mysteries definitely are in the same class as McBain, Grimes, and James, and like Grimes and James, have that little bit of reserve that distinguishes the English-style mystery from the American-style mystery. And at $2.99 an ebook, the value is greater than that of the better-known but not more capable English-style mystery writers. I highly recommend Tyley’s three ebooks to mystery fans.

June 22, 2010

Some Worthwhile Ideas for eBook Devices

I came across this video by Kevin Rose, a founder of Digg, with some suggestions for future enhancements for ebook reading devices. I think his suggestions are excellent.

The question now is whether they can be implemented at what seems to be the new price levels for e-ink readers. Barnes & Noble has introduced a new $149 wi-fi version of its nook and has lowered the price on its 3G nook to $199. Amazon has lowered its price for the K2 Kindle to $189 and Sony has lowered the pricing on its line of readers: Pocket Edition (PRS-300) $169.99, Touch Edition (PRS-600) $199.99, and the Daily Edition (PRS-900) $349.99 (I am certain I have seen this priced at $299.99). Also available is the Kobo Reader at $149.

The pricing is excellent for these devices, especially compared to what my Sony PRS-505 cost 2.5 years ago ($299). If you are thinking about buying a reader, now may be the time to do so. I suspect that the new models that will appear beginning late August will all be higher priced.

I am waiting for the new models because what I want is an 8- or 9-inch (possibly a 9.7-inch) screen so I can convert my newspaper and magazine subscriptions to electronic versions and yet read them comfortably. If all I was interested in was reading books on my reader, then I would stick with my Sony 505, which has been and continues to be excellent.

As you may recall, I highly recommended the Promises to Keep Quartet by Shayne Parkinson in an earlier article. My wife wanted to read the quartet but wouldn’t use my Sony 505, saying that she didn’t want to take it away from me because she knows I enjoy reading on it so much. Needless to say, I countered that it wouldn’t be a problem, especially as I have such a huge to-be-read pile of hardcover books (and more on order), but she wouldn’t budge.

So I borrowed my son’s Sony 505 and loaded the books onto that device for her. Now I have two things to report: (1) Like me, she loves the Promises to Keep books. She is spending more time in the evenings reading these books than she usually spends reading. So for those of you who haven’t yet tried the books, here is another vote for them.

(2) My wife loves reading on the Sony 505. She was hesitant at first, but now has decided that this is an excellent way to read and actually prefers it, like I do, to reading the print versions. She has noted how much lighter the device is than many of the pbooks she reads; how she doesn’t lose her place should she fall asleep while reading (after about an hour of no activity the 505 automatically shuts off; when you turn it back on, it opens to where you were when it shut down);, how she was able to adjust the font size for easier reading; how she can easily carry multiple books (on my reader, for example, I have 134 books) with her wherever she goes, especially when she has to wait such as when getting the car serviced; and how she can easily sit outside in the sunshine and still read. Consequently, she has laid claim to my Sony 505 when I buy a new reader and if I don’t buy a new reader for me, I’ll need to buy one for her!

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: