I have been reading a lot more than I’ve been writing lately and a couple of books recently really made me think about how important characters are to a story. The two particular stories I’m going to discuss feature male/male relationships, although a lot of what I want to say will apply to any story.
The first was a m/m/m shifter ménage, which should have been right up my alley. Typos in two consecutive sentences on page 6 (Chapter 1 started on page 5), though, and I was starting to get concerned. By page 12 these characters that have just been introduced are having unprotected penetrative sex on horseback, and by page 14 the reader is led to believe that Jake changed Leyland into a shifter without bothering to explain that little fact to him.
Now, as a reader I’m pretty easy. I seldom have a problem suspending my disbelief and just going along with whatever scenario a story sets forth. I had a hard time with this story, though, because the characters seemed so unbelievable. Would a human man really get further than a blow job without a condom? Would you really be able to fall in love with someone who was wiling to turn you into a shifter without telling you? (Even if you were a shapeshifter already and couldn’t be changed?)
In this case I feel like the author sacrificed her characters for the gimmick of revealing that Leyland is already a shapeshifter. Which is not to say that I think characters and plot should always be straightforward and up front. Discovering things as you go, having discrepancies between perception and reality for the characters can make for a wonderful story. All of the elements however, especially the characters, do need to be believable within whatever constructs the author initially presents. If they do not ring true in the moment of the story, they will turn the reader away, not draw them in.
In contrast, I also read a perfect example of characters that draw you ever more deeply into a story. This particular story is a m/m historical. It opens with two men in a coach getting robbed by a highwayman. This is of course an exciting bit of action, but the best part for me was how everyone’s response to the situation – what valuables did they have to lose, would they attempt to use their weapons, etc - was used to reveal their personality. Nicholas, one of the central characters, finds himself drawn to the highwayman, even attracted to him, but his genuine fury at being robbed continues to leap off the page throughout the scene. By the time chapter two starts and Nicholas is at a fencing lesson I’m completely hooked. I believe in Nicholas. I care about him. I stay up ‘til 2am to finish the book, even though I’m not usually a huge fan of historicals, because of him.
It shouldn’t really be a surprise, I suppose, but I really came away from this week realizing just how important character is to me in a story. All of the stories I read over and over again have characters that engage me, characters whose lives I want to visit again and again, regardless of genre or the gender of the partners or anything else.
I want to write characters like that. As much as I want people to think I’m good technically as a writer, what really matters to me is that my characters come alive. I always get a thrill when someone asks me to write more, but I really love it when people tell me “I love your guys,” and ask to read more of them. Not my writing, my characters.