I came across this nugget of writing advice from JK Rowling in an article from the Toronto Star. It’s simple, but important.
Of the “universal appeal” of her books, Rowling said, “I’ve been asked that question a lot. I’ve always found it very difficult to answer. I feel there’s an expectation that I should know what the magical formula was, but in truth I wrote what I liked reading.
“I wrote about characters I was deeply interested in.”
And that is probably the most profound writing advice you’ll get–the part we forget sometimes. Have you ever been writing along on some short story for a contest, a journal, even working on a novel, but you don’t really care about the characters? In fact, you would find them boring if you met them in real life? Or tiresome, or annoying, or bland, or one-sided, or pitiful.
It matters to your readers if you care about your characters. Sometimes, like scribbling gods, we are interested in our Plots–how we can mess up the quiet lives of our characters, or how interesting we can make their situations—but the characters may not matter as much because they are being propelled by the plot. They are riding shotgun to the plot that’s really driving. They can react, white-knuckle the door, scream, maybe even fling the door wide, but they don’t get to drive, and partly because they just aren’t as interesting as the cool plot we’ve given the keys to.
I read that article and interview with Rowling and I left thinking about my own stories, and how many of those characters–on the stories I was working on–were those I wasn’t “deeply interested” in? You could say that for short stories you only have to be mildly attracted to them–it’s a 10 page affair after all. But a novel, you might say–or even a Potter series–you’d have to be interested in the character. Yet, I think we all want memorable characters to follow as we read. As we write. In short stories and in long ones, and in series. Because if we’re interested, then readers will be too.
Time to revamp some of my characters–the ones I’m not currently deeply interested in–and find out how I make them more interesting on the page–so that even in a small story, the characters linger in a big way.