In his recent memoir, celebrated actor Sidney Poitier wrote, “The true measure of a man is how well he provides for his children.” Similarly, as a reader and a writer, the true measure of a fiction book to me is how well it provides for its characters and its readers.
Not historical accuracy, not plot, not craft, nor language; a story's characters should always form the first impression, be the focus, and create a lasting impression. Whether this is the dimpling sweetling in a Regency-set historical, a kickass brainiac of the twentieth century, the loathsome evil-doer, or the downtrodden and huddled masses, the story needs to deliver these characters in full technicolor glory: the accolades and the shortcomings, the insalubrious and the salacious.
For example, in Marry Me by Jo Goodman, Cole meets Rhyne as she is miscarrying her child. As a doctor, he takes care of her and discovers that she’d been brutalized and forced to miscarry. And out of all of this, with infinite care, patience, and tenderness, she comes into her own as a woman and love blossoms between the two.
Integrity and commitment, faith and forgiveness, joy and discipline, toughness of mind and independence—these form the very rhythm of life itself. They hold the novelist's dreams for a story as tightly as the story is holding on to them, nurturing the story and feeding it till the story is fully developed.
For example, in Barbara Samuel’s Heart Of a Knight, Thomas is a peasant masquerading as a knight. Lyssa is Lady Elizabeth of Woodell Castle. She has gone into exile to avoid the plaque. He stopped by to help the villagers deal with the plague’s aftermath. Being accepted and treated as a knight, Thomas rose to the challenge and acted the knight they wanted him to be. Even after he was unmasked, Lyssa forgave him for his charade, and her faith in him and his abilities finally made him a knight in his own eyes.
Every story has to put the readers' ideals and beliefs to test by pushing the envelope just a little bit to ask the question, “What can this story do that will be daring, interesting, but necessary to the plot?”
For example, in An Arranged Marriage, Jo Beverley’s hero Nicholas Delaney undertakes a spying mission for His Majesty’s government after his marriage. Part of his mission involves being the lover to a French spy. On the surface, this is an act of infidelity that should have no place in a romance novel. And yet, Beverley makes such a convincing case of love and respect evolving between Nicholas and his new wife Eleanor, that the mission does not jeopardize their marriage.
At the same time, when the writer sits down to write, she needs to ensure that nothing untoward happens to the characters. The feelings of groundedness and belonging, that have been woven into the readers, have been their companions from the start of their journey with the book or even the series. Thus, sacrificing a character for plot isn't an option.
This is breaking the pact with the reader, the pact where the words on the page have taken root down at the deepest level of human commonality. There's much of the reader in the characters and much of the characters in the reader.
[Spoiler alert!] For example, in Elizabeth George’s With No One As Witness, through a senseless, random act of violence, Helen, Thomas Lynley’s wife and their unborn child are shot dead. For many readers, Helen was the perfect wife for Lynley. Her unexplained death at the end made a perfect hook for the next book, but for some readers, George broke faith with Helen—and with them. In the next book, What Came Before He Shot Her, George does give the backstory that lead to the fatal shooting. But for some readers, the explanation wasn’t enough to justify the action.
Poitier's motto is, “Never leave home without a fixed commitment.” Similarly, a book should never begin nor end without a fixed commitment to its characters and the readers.
What to you then is the true measure of a book? Which books would you say perpetrated a gross miscarriage of justice against their characters?
Keira Soleore is an aspiring Medieval & Regency historical romance writer and the comments moderator for IASPR’s Journal of Popular Romance Studies. On the web, she can found on at Cogitations & Meditations, on herwebsite, and on Facebook. She also tweets.