Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In search of character

I’m struck by the sympathy for character that marks the best popular fiction. I can’t imagine a better case of apples and oranges than the writings of Michael Connelly and Nicholas Sparks, but they share one thing in common that I think may be the key to their unique and individual successes: a belief in the people that they are writing about. The reader cannot avoid being drawn in by the authors’ inherent sincerity. Plenty of people write procedurals and legal thrillers, and plenty of people write family stories, but these two succeed again and again so much better than almost anyone else. Sure, they’re good story-tellers, but they’re telling us good stories about people who feel real. That’s the key. And that reality begins with the authors themselves.

In Connelly’s case, he has not one but two series characters he’s working with. One is Harry Bosch, LAPD, and the other is lawyer Mickey Haller. They come together in Connelly’s latest, The Brass Verdict. What demonstrates Connelly’s skill so well is that even readers who have never read one of his books before will be able to understand the depths of these characters, and why their relationship is so meaningful. Bosch is the kind of cop who takes no nonsense from anyone, and who has no problem standing up to his own bosses. Haller is a lawyer who does whatever it takes to win for a client, and sometimes whatever it takes isn’t so perfect, and neither are his clients. It is a joy to see these two characters working toward what seems to be the same goal.

As for Sparks, his career began with his fictionalizing some of the events in the life of his own family. But recently he has discovered a special affinity for armed forces veterans. We saw this in Dear John, with John Tyree, a troubled kid who finds his direction when he joins the service, and now we see it again in Sparks’s latest, The Lucky One, with ex-Marine Logan Thiboult. There is a sense of competency in these men, a sense of mission and a sense of longing, that simply strikes the reader as going deep into the reality of actual people. They don’t feel like made-up characters. They feel like your brothers and sons and friends, the ones who are serving their country because they believe it’s the right thing to do, and you respect them for this just as you respect those people we know in real life in that same situation.

Of course, these two authors are storytellers: in addition to creating empathetic characters (going beyond the lead characters mentioned here), they are writing stories that engage us. We want to see what happens to these people. But it is not the sheer plotting that makes the difference. In the long run, story is simply a vehicle. It’s the people that count. And these people, in two different sorts of novels by two different sorts of writers, are unforgettable. We believe in these characters because their creators believe in these characters. They’re radically different writers working radically different sides of the street, but they share that one important thing in common. And that’s what good writing is all about.

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