What a Character! (Mary Strand)

This month at YA Outside the Lines, we’re talking about character, presumably in the context of writing.

Alas, I'm not interested in teaching — or even talking about — writing. Writing is just something I do.

But I have a few thoughts about character.

I won't go into politics (you're welcome), but the subject of character reminds me of the movie The American President, in which Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd. Although I love the whole movie (ooh! must rewatch! but I should maybe finish this blog first!), there's a scene at the end of the movie in which Andrew Shepherd is speaking at a press conference, and he suddenly hits one out of the park:

"For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character... I've been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being president of this country is *entirely* about character."


But this isn't true only of presidents. Character is the single most important consideration in everyone I hang out with. Sure, I want my friends to be funny and interesting and up for an adventure. (At all hours.) But are they caring? Honest? Kind? Do they have a good heart?

Nothing is more important than having a good heart. Period. If they don't, at most they're an acquaintance. A secondary character in my life.

In books and movies, secondary characters (and especially villains) can be mean, dishonest, and downright diabolical. No need to have a good heart. Villains generally don't! (Although a story becomes SO much more fascinating on the rare occasions that they do.) But if the MAIN characters aren't fundamentally good people at their core, no one cares what happens to them. That's when I quit reading a book or watching a movie. Bad character, end of story.

Now, some writers will smugly claim that good fiction is ALL about character. (The same people may also chastise you if you still put two spaces after a period. You do you.)

If a story is ALL about character, as opposed to plot, it's going to be one hell of a slow read. (I just finished reading a book like that. The characters spent far too much of their time talking or, worse, thinking. Ugh.)

And I always use The Da Vinci Code as an example of a book (and movie) that was all plot, zero character. It was ridiculously fast paced, which I loved, but there was virtually no character development. Or character, period. The hero, Robert Langdon, isn't a bad person, but he simply followed the pieces of a puzzle, and you don't get to know him. Some people hated that. I noticed the absence, but I loved the book anyway. Give me enough of a plot, and I'm hooked.

Ideally, of course, a book (or movie) has a balance of character and plot. But it doesn't have to, any more than you have to use only one space after a period. There are many ways to tell a story, many roads to Oz.

But for God's sake, ALWAYS use an Oxford comma.

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her books and music at marystrand.com.


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