I've taken a long hiatus from my online critique group. I have excuses by the bucket load. In the last six months, I left my job, sold my house, made an interstate move, all the while, struggling with an uncooperative WIP. I'm getting back into the swing of things, however, and as usual, critiquing other writer's stories forces me to clarify my own thinking and teaches me at least as much as it teaches the writer who is under the gun.
So what have I learned this week? Well, I'm up to chapter 15 in one of the stories I've been reading and I knew it wasn't really working for me. I also knew that reason was that I found the main characters bland.
That wasn't my response to all the characters. A couple of the characters I actively disliked. (With at least one of them, that is the proper response.) But when your readers are responding more to secondary characters than they are to your main characters, that's not good. Being, at best, lukewarm about the main characters (MCs) is a good way to loose your reader before they get to the last page. In the case of the story I'm reading, the heroine is a nice woman. The hero is a workaholic but still a good guy. Blandness incarnate.
In an effort to figure out what to suggest to the writer to fix this problem, I started thinking about what draws me to people (the real, live kind), and I realized that one thing that most of my closest friends have in common is that I laugh with them. The social sciences say that women bond through talking and men bond through doing. I'm willing to bet that regardless of which method creates a bond, laughing with your friends will make the bond stronger.
Many of my "keepers" are books where the characters have made me laugh. When I think of those books, it's individual scenes that come to mind. One in particular struck me. Way back in the outback of time, I read a series called The Dragonlance Chronicles. It's a great series with an ensemble cast, but one of the characters I really love is a seriously tormented character. The character has a brother who is as different from him as anyone could be. Predictably, these two characters find each other emotionally baffling. It's the sort of relationship that really hooks readers and oddly (or perhaps not), the one scene between them that I remember most vividly is a scene where the brothers unexpectedly find themselves laughing together. And not just laughing but laugh-until-you-cry kind of laughing. What was emotionally significant about this scene to me, as a reader, was that it sparked a hope that somehow the brothers would find the connection that they both needed. We're talking about serious reader investment here and what created that? Laughter. Theirs and mine.
I found this significant when I thought about the piece I was critiquing because, in the fifteen chapters I'd read, I couldn't remember a single scene where the characters laughed or displayed their sense of humor. I can see how easy it would be to get focused on getting the story from point a to point b, to hit the plot points lined out, and to overlook this side of one's characters, but since getting your characters laughing is one of the easiest ways to get your readers to bond with those character, I don't think writers can't afford to overlook it. And when you're writing romance, where it's so important that the readers root for the MCs to end up together, showing them enjoying each other's company is critical, and what better way is there to do that than with laughter,.
Next week, I'm going to write about other ways to keep your characters from being bland.