One of the more common reasons I’ve heard for people not liking or not finishing books is that they just didn’t care about the characters. Most authors will tell you that they want the characters to matter to readers because if they don’t, readers won’t get involved in the story. And that makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, most readers don’t want to feel that they’re being manipulated – that their heartstrings are being pulled, if you will. So an author has to strike a delicate balance to get readers to care about characters and interested in knowing what happens to them without being exploitative.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, newly-hired games mistress Grace Springer is shot one night in the brand new Sports Pavilion at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. It’s not long before the police suspect that she was killed because she found out more than was safe for her to know. Then one of the students is kidnapped. And there’s another death. Now it seems that Meadowbank may have to close its doors permanently. Julia Upjohn, one of the students, slowly begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She visits Hercule Poirot, who’s acquainted with a friend of her mother’s and tells him what she’s deduced, and he gets involved in the case. Throughout this novel, we feel a real sympathy for Honoria Bulstrode, the headmistress and co-founder of Meadowbank. She’s worked hard for years to establish Meadowbank’s reputation, and we can’t help but care about what happens to the school for her sake. And yet, Christie doesn’t get overly sentimental about Bulstrode’s character or about the case itself. For that reason, the reader doesn’t feel exploited.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is another character for whom we can feel real sympathy; he’s won millions of fans because we really care about what happens to him. Part of the reason for that is that he’s got a very effective balance of strengths and flaws. Yes, he’s crotchety and it’s sometimes hard to work with him. He can be sharp-tempered and he’s not good at taking advice. And yet, underneath that we see another side of him. For instance, in The Jewel That Was Ours, Morse and Lewis are assigned to find out what’s happened to the Wolvercote Tongue, a piece of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle that was supposed to be donated to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. When Theodore Kemp, curator of that museum, is killed the day after the disappearance of the Wolvercote Tongue, Morse and Lewis are sure the two events are related, and so they are. In the process of searching for answers, Morse meets Sheila Williams, a university event organiser who was helping to co-ordinate the public event at which the Wolvercote Tongue was to be presented to the Ashmolean. As it turns out, she also has a strong motive for murdering Kemp. Morse is smitten with her and she seems to feel the same way. In fact, they spend a night together and agree to see each other again. Morse shows up a bit early and waits for quite a while but Williams doesn’t meet him as planned, so Morse decides to drown his sorrows at a hotel bar:
“As he came to the door, he looked inside – and stopped. There, seated at the bar, a large empty glass held high in her left hand, her arm resting on the shoulder of a youngish (bearded!) man, sat Sheila Williams, her black-stockinged legs crossed provocatively, her body disturbingly close to her companion’s.
Morse held back, feeling a great surge of irrational and impotent jealousy. About which he could do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Like a stricken deer he walked back to the foyer where he wrote a brief note (‘Unavoidable, urgent police business’) and asked the concierge to take it through to the bar in about five minutes or so, and hand it to a Mrs. Williams – Mrs. Sheila Williams.”
You almost can’t help but care about Morse at times like this. Especially if you’ve ever been treated that way.
In Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight, we follow the fortunes of the Sutherland family. Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their children Leona and Jake live what you might call an ordinary life until the world’s oil supply is suddenly and deliberately cut off. When that happens, the Sutherlands are all in different places. Each of them tries desperately to re-unite with the others, and it’s that story that keeps the reader’s attention as much as does the story of the international intrigue and plotting that’s led to the oil cutoff. The members of the Sutherland family are not painted as heroic, “larger than life” characters. They’re also not drawn in an overly sentimental way. And that’s perhaps part of the reason that we care about them so much. We want to know what happens to them; it matters.
That’s also the case in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. In that novel, ten-year-old Kate Meaney has started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. She spends as much time as she can at the newly-opened mall Green Oaks, looking for crimes to solve. Then one day, she’s scheduled to sit entrance exams at Redspoon, an exclusive school. She gets on the bus to the school with her friend Adrian Palmer, but never comes back. It’s assumed that Adrian Palmer is responsible for her disappearance and probable death and in fact, sentiment against him runs so high that he leaves town. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa works at Green Oaks in a dead-end job as Assistant Manager of Your Music. She’s in a dead-end relationship too and in fact her life is in stasis until the night she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been troubled by odd images he’s seen on the mall’s cameras: a young girl who, Lisa discovers, looks a lot like Kate Meaney. Each in a different way, these two get to the truth about what really happened to Kate and as they do, we care about them. We also care very much about Kate. The characters in this novel are multi-dimensional. Neither Lisa nor Kurt (nor anyone in their families) is perfect. Neither is Kate. They are very human and that’s a very important part of why we care about what happens to them.
That ability to make readers care about characters without being overly sentimental about them is part of the reason that Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy is so well-regarded. Those novels feature Maureen “Mauri” O’Donnell, who comes from a hellish home life and has had some very bad things happen to her. In part because of what’s happened in her life, she’s got a tough exterior. She’s made some dubious associations and some real mistakes and she’s got some real faults. But we care about her. She’s strong, brave and even has a sense of humour despite the things she has had to face. She can be compassionate and she is determined. On one level the reader sympathises with her because of what’s happened to her. But it goes deeper; the reader can also respect her and it’s not hard to be on her side.
And that’s one of the reasons that characters can stay with us, and that we think about them, even when we’ve finished the novel. Which characters have had that effect on you? Why do you think that is?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Head East’s Never Been Any Reason.