September 13, 2014

What I like about my favorite characters

I'm the type of reader whose enjoyment of a story is greatly influenced by my feelings toward the main characters. All things being equal, I'm more likely to enjoy books where I like the protagonists.

What makes me like a character? I've been trying to figure that out because I also want to write characters that readers feel an affinity toward. Here's my list of what attracts me to my favorite characters.
  1. They exhibit redeeming qualities that would make me like them in real life. I like people who are unselfish, modest, and dependable, for example. Fortunately, in many of the books I read, the main characters possess those qualities. They're the typical "good guys." Consider the trio in Harry Potter or Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games. They think of others, are fiercely loyal to their friends, but they don't seek the limelight despite their achievements.
  2. They have a flaw that they overcome. I don't expect the protagonists to be perfect. In fact, they shouldn't be, but through the course of the story, they should discover their major flaws and strive to address them. That assumes that the character wants to better himself/herself, which is another quality I like. Oh, and the flaw can't be something so huge that it's unforgivable.
  3. They are believable. Regardless of whether a story takes place in a fantasy world or a distant future, the characters should act believably, even when their actions seem extreme. For example, when Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games in Prim's place, I believed she'd really do that because of her love for her sister.
  4. They have a sense of humor. This is a bonus. I like plenty of characters who are serious, but it's more fun to read a book where the characters inject humor into their situations.

Conversely, there are factors that make me dislike a character (and hence a book).
  1. They are flawed to an unforgivable extent or they don't try to fix their flaws. I'm not a fan of the anti-hero as a protagonist. Nor do I particularly enjoy main characters who are drunks, violent, lazy, or otherwise exhibit attributes I dislike in people I meet. For example, I just finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Her writing is great, but I didn't like the book as much as I could have because I just didn't like the character of Nick Dunne. I won't go into details about what he does because I would give away spoilers, but he's flawed to the point that I would dislike him if I knew him in real life.
  2. They make dumb decisions or decisions that seem to only move the plot forward. Matched is a great example of this. Although I liked Ally Condie's writing, I just couldn't get over the fact that Cassie chose Ky over Xander so early in the story for no apparent reason other than that, if she didn't, there'd be no story. Needless to say, I stopped reading that series after the first book.
  3. This is more of a comment on character development than the characters themselves. When an author spends too much time on "character development" by describing everything they do in every hour of every day of their lives (hello, Stephen King?), that puts me to sleep. You don't need 600 pages to develop your characters!

What is it about your favorite characters that make you like them so much? What don't you like about your least favorite characters?

September 6, 2014

Book review: The Mirror Stage by J.J. Stone

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Ada Brandt wants everyone to think she’s normal. A writing professor at a local Seattle college, she personifies the saying “those who can’t, teach” after a few failed attempts at becoming an author led her to the classroom. She owns a chic little house, drives a sporty car, and comes home to her dog after a long day at work. You’d never know she’s the daughter of one of Seattle’s most infamous serial killers — a fact Ada has labored her whole life to bury.

Then the FBI’s BAU team arrives to investigate a recent murder spree and Ada is strong-armed by the BAU’s bull-headed lead agent James Deacon into helping with the investigation. As Ada and the BAU dive deeper into the case, two things become glaringly apparent: this is not a typical murder case, and catching their suspect is only the beginning of an investigation that will alter the lives of everyone involved.

The Mirror Stage is the first installment of The Imago Trilogy and is J.J. Stone’s debut novel.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

September 3, 2014

Book review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

August 30, 2014

Amazon, where do my sales come from?

This post was inspired by Hugh Howey's recent blog post titled, "Stuff I Want to Know." (This isn't the first time that Mr. Howey has inspired me, by the way.) In the post, he lists 12 things that he would love to know from Amazon. Given his clout, I'm hoping that most of his questions will be answered.

One question that wasn't on his list, and that I asked in the comments (the only time my name will appear on a page written by Hugh Howey, I'm sure), was where my sales come from. I would love to know if people find my books because of this blog, a review that a book blogger posted, a promotion I run, or some other source. For an author, or any seller, that information is golden.

John Wanamaker, a pioneer in marketing, is credited with saying, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." Digital advertising platforms have sprung up to answer that question. Google and other sites provide that information to some extent. I'm sure Amazon tracks the referrer URLs for all of their product pages. It should be rather simple to link a sale with the referrer URL that led to it. Even if Amazon doesn't reveal the actual URL but only the domain, that can be useful to. Do more people come from Twitter or Facebook? Are promotions from one site more effective than promotions from another? Even if Amazon tells me the referrer for product page views instead of sales, that's still better than nothing. Google's Blogger, where this blog is hosted, provides that information. Why can't Amazon? Here's to hoping the world's largest online retailer is listening.

August 23, 2014

Book review: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

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Battle Royale, a high-octane thriller about senseless youth violence, is one of Japan's best-selling and most controversial novels. As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade students are taken to a small isolated island with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when they break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until only one "winner" remains. The elimination contest becomes the ultimate in must-see reality television. A Japanese pulp classic available in English for the first time, Battle Royale is a potent allegory of what it means to be young and survive in today's dog-eat-dog world. The first novel by small-town journalist Koushun Takami, it went on to become an even more notorious film by 70-year-old gangster director Kinji Fukusaku.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

August 15, 2014

Every story has already been told

Last time, I talked about how worthless a story idea is if you don't do anything with it. What if you have the opposite problem? Instead of thinking that your idea is great, what if you don't like it because you think it's a rip-off of someone else's idea? Well, to tell you the truth, it probably is. That's because, at some level, every story idea has already been taken.

I just read Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. It's about a government that forces a group of teens to kill each other until there's only one survivor left. Does that sound familiar? Hunger Games, anyone? Yup, when The Hunger Games grew in popularity, some critics accused it of ripping off Battle Royale, which was published earlier. On the surface, they are two very similar story ideas, but I believe Suzanne Collins when she said that she wasn't aware of the Japanese book and came up with her idea independently. Anyone who's read both books will see that both authors treated the subject matter in different ways, their writing styles are vastly different, and as a result, a reader can enjoy both books without feeling cheated by two seemingly identical story ideas.

To take it to an extreme, some say that there are only seven basic story plots. (I've also heard as few as three.) So what are the chances that the new story idea in your head is different from what every author who's come before you has written? Zero. But don't worry. You're not Hemingway, you're not Stephen King, you're not Suzanne Collins. And I mean that in a good way because it means that your take on the idea will be different from theirs. Despite the apparent similarities, if you're true to yourself and write the best story you can, it'll be sufficiently different from what other authors have written.

Now, I don't condone plagiarism or conscious rip-offs of other works, but there's a lot of room to work with before you reach that stage. Consider the number of sparkly vampire stories that popped up when Twilight became popular. Those authors were definitely trying to capitalize on Twilight's success by emulating it. I haven't read any of those books (nor Twilight for that matter, although I've seen the movies), but if they can be deemed different enough from the original, chances are that your story idea will be considered original as well.

Don't let the fear that your idea isn't unique stop you from pursuing it. As I mentioned before, an idea is worthless if it stays in your head.

August 9, 2014

Book review: The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

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The year is 1867, and seventeen-year-old Verity Boone is excited to return to Catawissa, Pennsylvania, the hometown she left when she was just a baby. Now she will finally meet the fiancĂ© she knows only through letters! Soon, however, she discovers two strangely caged graves . . . and learns that one of them is her own mother’s. Verity swears she’ll get to the bottom of why her mother was buried in “unhallowed ground” in this suspenseful teen mystery that swirls with rumors of witchcraft, buried gold from the days of the War of Independence, and even more shocking family secrets.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)