That’s anybody’s guess, I suppose, but there are things we can do to help our own stories along, because The Lord of the Rings is not just about hobbits, and Cinderella isn’t just about going to the ball to meet a prince.
So what do the great stories have in common?
One thing the classics all have is strong, or well-developed, characters. There is just something about the hero or heroine that grabs the reader. The best are flawed in some way, which makes them more interesting and allows the reader to relate to them on a personal level but also leaves room for character development throughout the story, which is what keeps the reader turning pages.
“Strong” and “well-developed” are not always synonymous. For example, we don’t know a lot about the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, though we can infer quite a bit from his actions. For example, we know he must have been a successful merchant, because (1) he had enough money to put the battered man up in an inn, and (2) he—or his reputation—was well enough known by the innkeeper that he trusted the Samaritan to return and reimburse him for his care of this Jew.
Likewise, Bilbo Baggins is the first hobbit we meet, and we don’t know a lot about him, hobbits, or Middle Earth, but through Bilbo’s adventures, we learn a whole lot about this unpretentious little creature who shows extraordinary courage in the face of dangers that would defeat most of us. Is he flawed? Certainly. But he comes through in the end, because he has that special “something” inside him that overcomes his fears. And it is that special “something” that keeps us reading.
The same applies to current, contemporary characters. There are hundreds of contemporary thrillers out there, but I tend to read best-selling authors like Catherine Coulter, Nora Roberts, and Jayne Ann Krentz, because their characters usually grab me from page one. Their female leads are inevitably strong, independent women who have doubts and fears just like the rest of us. They win in the end, because they can depend upon themselves, but also because they can allow themselves to lean on someone else, when the climax to the story comes, which shows a different kind of courage.
I, for one, look at character first, when I read any book. If I get to Chapter 2 and still don’t like the main characters, it doesn’t matter to me how promising the story is. I will put it aside to donate to the next book sale at the library. “Character counts”—in life and in fiction.
Next week we’ll look at how settings can make—or break—a good story.