What makes a book memorable? I think we’d all agree that great characters make great fiction.
Unfortunately many writers forget that truism when they are writing what they see as a plot-driven story. I have been reading a number of such manuscripts lately. Usually they are genre fiction – mysteries, thrillers, action adventure and alternate history, but it happens in memoir as well. The authors are caught up in the intricate events of their plot. You can almost hear them asking themselves, “What happened next?”after each plot twist. Often they come up with interesting answers to the question. But when they are finished their story is unsatisfying. The reason is usually the same.
Super literary agent Donald Maas puts his finger on the problem in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel:
"…it’s a common fault of beginning thriller writers to slam Everyman, your average Joe, into the middle of something big and terrible. Such stories usually feel lackluster because the character is lackluster. A plot is just a plot. It is the actions of a person that make it memorable or not. Great characters rise to the challenges of great events."
The question these authors should be asking themselves is not what happens next (although that’s an important question), but why would my character do this. It’s a bit like a method actor asking, “What’s my motivation?” When the reader can understand what drives a character to take the actions (or not to take them) that he does, that character becomes more than two dimensional.
What must an author do if his character is to make that jump? Another literary agent, Al Zuckerman, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel explains:
"He must let us see and share the longings, hopes, carnal desires, ambitions, fears, loves and hates that reside privately within the soul of his character and that (much as in life) other characters may know little or nothing about."
What an author needs to understand is that a memorable character will not take an action simply because it fits into his plot outline.
Fictional characters, like all of us, are faced without internal conflicts growing out of the things Zuckerman enumerates. It’s the author’s job to develop those inner conflicts at least as thoroughly as the plot points he wants to make.