|Did you connect with the characters in The Notebook (movie)? I didn't.|
I've been reading occasional reviews of Monstrous Beauty, in book blogs and on goodreads. (I consider this activity to be research, not obsession.)
A trend is emerging—a weak one so far, but definitely there—and it makes me want to know more. Some comments and reviews mention that the reader had trouble connecting with the characters (and particularly with the main character, Hester). Interestingly, this comment has almost uniformly been followed by, "But I liked the story enough that I didn't care."
Well, as the author I do care. It's my job to care. Why aren't these particular readers connecting with my characters? What does it even mean to connect with characters? And how does an author orchestrate it?
I put that photo at the top of the post because I sometimes worry that I may be unqualified to delve into these questions. I may have a defective "character connection" gene. Case in point: I had absolutely no attachment to the characters in The Notebook (the movie version; I haven't read any Nicholas Sparks books). Meanwhile, I have friends on Twitter who re-watch the movie whenever they want to have a good cry. So why did the characters not move me at all? Well, I felt the way some of my readers have said they felt with MB: "disconnected." The female lead was annoying to the point of being frustrating; the male lead seemed convinced he had no life without her (deal-killer, not romantic); they didn't actually get along all that well outside of bed; I don't believe there's only one person you can love in the world. On the other hand, speaking in terms of movies again, I did feel a connection to Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy in the 1996 Pride and Prejudice. She was a bright woman and a good emotional catch for Darcy; he was exceptionally loyal to the people he loved, and willing to learn from his mistakes. They had actual stuff to talk about.
In both cases my connection (or lack of ) is based on intellectual arguments, isn't it? Perhaps there is a pattern here: I connected with Ripley in Alien because she was quick-thinking, kick-ass, and determined (oh, god, I wanted her to live). I connected with the older, no-nonsense Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle, but not so much the younger, self-sacrificing, insecure Sophie. I'm reading Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and I'm connecting like heck with Maddie and Queenie—both of them brilliant and resourceful (and in theory I haven't even met one of them yet). I did not bond at all with Bella or Eward when I read Twilight.
I suspect it's different for everyone, but for me, as a viewer and reader, characters have to earn my "connectedness" with strong personal qualities, very often intelligence. Mind you, intelligence isn't necessary or sufficient: I just have to admire them in some way before I'll care about them. This admiration can extend to bad guys, as well. They can be tragic or evil, as long as they have strength of character. And some dynamite characters seem at first to be tragically weak or wounded (Sophos in A Conspiracy of Kings, anyone? Taylor in Jellicoe Road? Little gum-smacking Gilly Hopkins?), but the seeds of strength or downright greatness are all just under the surface, for careful readers to see and root for.
If characters don't merit my respect, I'll watch their progress with detachment. And so, as I was writing Monstrous Beauty, I loved Hester's smarts and strength, and I found myself hoping that both traits would hold her in good stead through her harrowing journey. But I think my tastes are unusual in this respect, and I wish I could nail whatever it is that makes other readers feel connected to characters.
What makes you feel "connected" while you're reading?