I’ll come out and say it. It’s not enough to be a wonderful person anymore–in life or in literature. I mean, it’s still great, but these days, a person, a character, even an idea needs to be grounded in some sort of knowledge or expertise. You can see the dearth of knowledge all over Twitter–lots of personality but often not much behind it other than arguing and a link*. It doesn’t take much to become a ten-minute phenomenon. This is why more and more, the way to stand out with a book and, I guess, as a person, is to put one’s nose to the grindstone, work, and keep learning.
This is why I love books. Books elucidate, inspire, and elevate. Sometimes, they can send you into dark territory. Though I must admit, I love that. If you want me to read on, scare me to bits.
With each book, at the very least, I expand my horizons, even if it’s a stinker. After twenty years of editing, I understand why certain books are bad or what is needed to fix them (often more editing). When I pick up a book, I think of the usual things: Who is the author? Why do people love this book? Why should I even read it? What will I discover? The plot might hook me at first, but the characters keep me going. I want to care about them as people. And these days, I want to know what they do–aside from being awesome characters who deserve love. What talents do they have? What keeps them from being blah?
This is where a writer needs to research and find a way to infuse the character with some kind of expertise. Maybe it’s an unexpected skill she acquires: the writer and the character in her story.
Here’s sort of an example of what I mean. Recently, I was asked to give a talk on overseas marketing. Do I know anything about this? No. In fact, I’d say I was the worst person to send to do this. But after twenty-six years of standing in front of people, I could definitely fake it. I can talk to anyone now**, but faking a speech would be just lame.
The solution was simple: for me to seek out the experts in the marketing field and get a lot of help. It meant watching less news coverage of our imploding world and fewer Housewives gallivanting in the Hamptons. So much the better because the information turned out to be fascinating, like how we sell books to different territories and the surprises about what themes are successful and what aren’t. When you learn something new, your enthusiasm shows and your audience appreciates it.
The experience built my confidence. And now I can say interesting things to someone new.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about expertise and how valuable it is to amass skills and information. It builds you as a person and, as a writer who researches myriad topics, your writing can’t help from benefit from this. When I read books, characters with skills win out over those who are bumps on a log. A heroine who is passionate about designing wedding dresses? Yes! Especially winning is when the author does research and shows us in detail how the character creates her masterpieces. What about a medical examiner who has the truth about how a murder was committed? I’m so with her and want to understand science the way I didn’t bother to do in high school.
In romantic suspense, I learn a whole lot about law enforcement and how to hide one’s tracks (wear gloves, don’t leave hair behind). I also gravitate toward non-fiction to soak up new information, especially if about a skill/passion that I have (Joe Torre’s book on management, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). Then, there’s the book that shows off a writer’s research (Botany in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and gems and jewelry in Stoned by Aja Raden). Who knew I loved the plants I can’t help killing or that Japan created an empire of cultured pearls? Not me!
In romance novels, you learn about the careers/backgrounds of two main characters (at least) and this brings the reader into a new world. I especially love books with military themes since that life is fascinating to me. I was speaking with an author recently who generally writes contemporary romance but loves to delve into historicals because the research is so much fun. Another author told me excitedly about her seminar with a forensic expert. I love writers and characters who know and can do things. They can perform surgeries, run ultra-marathons in bare feet, explore different time periods, serve in the military and write about it with knowledge and precision, just to name a few.
I get that it’s okay to read about a lovable person, too.
It helps us get in touch with the lovability in all of us. But it’s even more fun to become engrossed in someone whose pursuits may not always be inward focused. Your character is an investment for the reader. Do you want to read about someone who languishes on the couch and is generally nice? Or do you want to read about someone who is multi-faceted.
It is the difference between having a conversation with someone who talks about their feelings and someone who discusses their feelings and maybe also understand how a diamond goes from being carbon to rising to the earth’s crust.
For me, a story succeeds if your protagonist is more than just charming or a survivor of hardship. We all endure so much. Of course, a writer can bring out the unique elements of a universal experience. But it’s even more powerful if the main character has a gift of some kind: wacky intelligence, medical expertise, a legal mind, artistic genius, leadership, a caring nature that transforms others, deep knowledge of…something cool. This is more parallel to real life where we are all carrying around gifts in abundance.
*Did I mention I have a Twitter addiction and am endlessly scrolling and reading what everyone says. I really shouldn’t speak.
**Except for celebrities.