So, last week I was browsing the web (one of my favorite pastimes for finding interesting details and acquiring knowledge) when I came across a very … shall we say, interesting post. It was on a book forum, where someone was, if I recall the context correctly, talking about a specific Sci-Fi book they tried to read. A recent award winner, again if I recall correctly, from one of those snooty ‘literary’ awards. Anyway, they mentioned that they’d tried reading it, but had given up because, as they explained, all the characters fell flat. Or rather, were flat, simply mouthpieces to explain the story’s science. They had no other character or uniqueness other than a name. They were just there as, well, robots, to drive the science forward. Other than that, they were simply flat caricatures. As a result, the reader had given up on the book, because there was no character to revolve around.
Now, this post jumped out at me for two reasons. The first, but not the foremost, was that it lined up with a news article I recall reading a few years ago about in which a major publisher, faced with the falling sales of their Sci-Fi and Fantasy, conducted a nationwide survey of their former readers (no idea how they pulled that off, but they have to have some metric for it) asking why their former readers had abandoned them. The answer? That too many of their books just didn’t have good characters anymore, or worse, had characters that were just ideological mouthpieces for the science/social angle of the book. Without strong, compelling, or real characters, their readers had abandoned them.
The second reason that this post jumped out at me was the response to it. This was on a forum that is … Well, let’s just say they’re the kind of readers that the current publishers want to have in greater number. The response was immediate and, shockingly, angry. We’re talking caps and exclamation marks about how dare this reader put down a book because the characters weren’t good. Because—and understand I’m summarizing a number of posts here—characters aren’t important. They’re just mouthpieces to present the science. You’re not supposed to care about them. Or find them interesting. If you do, that’s a bonus, not a requirement. Blah blah blah, you read the book for the message, not for the characters, who cares if they’re shallow, etc etc etc.
Reading over this led me to this post. Where I’m going to say something flat-out.
That stance? That characters don’t matter? It’s wrong. From start to finish. This isn’t even a matter of opinion. That’s why the survey sprang to mind. That survey said that people do care about characters, that people are invested in how characters act and why. And do you know why?
Because they are! Great characters make stories come to life! They sell stories. Not science or social messages. Those can be pandered anyone in a deadpan monotone and still find their audience of those already subscribed to the idea. But a story? That takes characters.