You hear all the time that character is everything. Characters carry your story. People fall for characters, read for characters, and buy for characters. Story is nothing without the people that bring it to life.
I know this, I believe this, but like other advice you hear often, it tends to fall into the white noise. Recently, I watched a movie that brought this bit home for me.
On New Year’s Eve, I had made plans to go to an outdoor party with friends to ring in 2017. It was the first time I’d ever made plans, but I figured Canada’s bicentennial was a good time to break my tradition. However, Mother Nature was not down with my plans.
It was cold, which I could have gotten over. But it also snowed. And snowed. Then snowed some more. Around 5 p.m. I went to my local grocery store, which is about five blocks from my house. The speed limit in my town is 30 km/h. The trip was not a pleasant one. That sealed it for me: my New Year’s plans were not happening. I was not driving 50 km in treacherous conditions on a highway that is largely pitch-black.
So instead of partying it up with friends I stayed in and watched a movie with my parents. The choices were meagre, but we settled on a 90s action movie because it’s a genre we all enjoy. Plus my mom and I really like Nicholas Cage.
There’s no nice way to say it, The Rock is a terrible movie. Its cast includes some great actors, Nick Cage, like I already said, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, a ton of people who are big actors now who were still nobodies in 1996. Even the director and the behind the scenes people are currently major Hollywood players.
And yet not one of them could save this movie. The dialogue, even for an action movie, was pathetic. The f-word just doesn’t have as much subtext as the writers were looking for. The acting was not very good in many parts. The shooting scenes reeked of Tarantino-over-indulgence. The plot didn’t make a lot of sense, which made all of the character motivations hard to believe.
The only thing that made it watchable, fot us, was Nicholas Cage’s character. He played his out-of-his element, federal-biochemist-turned-field-agent so superbly, we had to see how it turned out for him. Every commercial break I turned to my mom and said, “This is awful.” And all she kept saying was, “But I really like his character!”
So we watched it to the end. It’s stupid, stupid end.
I’m not saying anyone should write a horrible book and hope their character can carry it for them. No one should strive for that. But it’s a reality that not all of us are going to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games or what have you.
Write the best story you can. Always. But invest doubly so in creating the best characters possible. If you’re going to go the extra mile on any part of your book, do it with character development. This is isn’t the only movie I’ve sat through more than once because I was invested in a character. I’ve done it with loads of books too.
Character is everything. Remember that and your readers will thank you in the end.