Characters With Appeal

I have three stories in mind today, mulling over why two of them fail for me, and one succeeds. Bottom line, character appeal.

One of the books is an aspiring writer’s manuscript, the other two were written by well-known authors. On the manuscript, a surprising reaction I had to an otherwise well-written book was that I just flat-out didn’t believe the character. It reminded me how important it is that the character really would act as shown. The rule is: The characters can’t be made to do things just for the author’s convenience. It was instructive how quickly I lost confidence in the story once I started feeling that the protagonist was on the author’s leash.

One book that starts off amazingly well and then fades for me is Dan Simmons’s Drood. He is one of my favorite authors, but he lost me when I realized that I was never going to warm up to his (otherwise fascinating) protagonist. Of course, Simmons doesn’t want us to like him. The character is a brilliantly unreliable narrator. All stuff I can’t imagine ever pulling off with such aplomb. I loved his book, The Terror. But I’m putting this one aside after 60 pages. Not only is the narrator unlikable, but Simmons is purposefully casting the other major character, Charles Dickens, as pompous, manipulative and appallingly arrogant.

Guess I’m a light-weight, but why should I spend time with such people? Now, I see that Drood is selling like crazy. This reminds me how little I know, and yet. Once you find a favorite author you might be willing to pick up the next one . . . and perhaps the rest of the book is so brilliant it doesn’t matter. My point is that the rest of us might scruple a little longer before writing an annoying protagonist, or one too dark.

Naomi Novik, on the other hand, continues to drag me through her series following the charismatic Temeraire. I’m just now reading The Black Powder War. Her protagonist Captain Laurence is likable and honorable, (saved from cardboard by his reduced social position as an aviator.) But he’s upstaged by the dragon Temeraire who is fortunately in almost every scene. So I have two appealing characters to follow, and one of them is knock-down delightful.

Hmm. Now to write such likable characters with depth . . .

6 Responses

  1. Have you ever read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson? A lot of people can’t stomach that series because they find the protagonist unlikeable.

  2. Kay says:

    Characters With Appeal

    Great example. Covenant is an exception. Guess there are *always* exceptions. I found Covenant hard slogging until I realized how much more the books were going to offer me. And that, come to think of it, is another interesting fiction concept, that you can get by with not offering the reader all that she might want as long as you offer a few other memorably strong reading pleasures.

  3. barbhendee says:

    Hi Kay,

    I had the same reaction to DROOD, and I was disappointed because when JC and I lived in Colorado, we were lucky enough to hear Dan read the first chapter–while he was still drafting the book. He hadn’t even picked a title yet.

    And I was so excited to buy the book when it was released!

    But like you . . . about 60 or 70 pages in, I decided life was too short to spend with such a character.

  4. Kay says:


    I’m sure the literary world will love this book. My, that opening of the Stapelhurst accident was wonderful, wasn’t it? But, as Gordon Van Gelder says so infamously (when rejecting a short story), “alas” . . .

  5. Re: Characters With Appeal

    Are you aware that he’s writing a third Covenant series (dubbed “The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”?). It doesn’t seem to be getting the publicity it deserves. I like it, anyway.

  6. Kay says:

    Thomas Covenant

    This is good news. And yes, kind of under the radar, unless I’m not paying enough attention!

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