Last year at NYCC (New York Comic Con), I came across a booth for a project called CharacTour and spent a little time chatting with the people there. The project was ambitious – they wanted to catalogue thousands of characters in stories across all kinds of media and index them in a way that would help people find characters they liked. Now I’m wishing I’d talked to them longer. I’m thinking of questions I wish I’d asked them. But they did tell me that they started CharacTour because they felt people connected with stories in large part because of the characters in them. They wanted to help people connect with new characters and therefore new stories and even new media.
I think it’s true that people enjoy and relate to stories because of the characters in them. There are other reasons, of course, but thinking back over books I’ve read, I can come up with a few in which the characters specifically drove my ultimate enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the book.
Bad news first: unfortunately but unsurprisingly, considering how much I read, I can think of books I liked otherwise in which the characters damaged my engagement with the story. The most egregious that immediately comes to mind is a book called The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser. I was genuinely curious to see where the plot was going, and the writing was decent, if not my usual cup of tea. But the characters, dear god, the characters. Not one of them seemed like a real, multifaceted human being. They seemed more like roles in a play, with specific cues of costuming and action to communicate to the audience in quick-and-dirty shorthand what archetype the character represented and how the audience ought to feel about them. In fairness, I only made it 100 pages into a 900-page book before I quit. In that early part of the book, the main character is a child, and the narrator makes much of saying he was a brat back then. Despite those limitations, better characterization ought to have been possible. Other books manage. I wish this one had.
That’s the negative evidence, but happily I can think of positive evidence as well, like the novel Stranger, by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown. It’s a fun book, and I would have enjoyed it regardless. There’s mystery, danger, action; the writing is good; and the setting is bright and interesting (the authors stated outright that they designed the setting according to Rule of Cool). But it was the characters that made me tell all my friends to read the book. For one, the cast is impressively diverse, which is more refreshing than I can readily describe. More importantly, however, they were just really good characters. They had complex thoughts, desires, and motivations. They acted in believable ways, and even when they weren’t likeable, they were sympathetic. The best example of this is a girl named Felicity. At the beginning of the book, I was surprised by her specifically because she didn’t seem like as good a character as the others. She seemed like a cardboard cutout Mean Girl: selfish, manipulative, disingenuous, and haughty. As the book went on and I learned more about her, though, I became more and more interested in her character. I still didn’t like her, because she’s not a likeable person, but I understood and sympathized with her. By the end of the book, hers was the story I was most interested in learning more about in further books.
So yes, I think the founders of CharacTour have a good idea, and I couldn’t agree more with their goals. Connecting people with good stories, stories they’ll like, is great in itself. Beyond that, though, I’m glad to see them trying to introduce people to stories across a wide variety of media. I love books, obviously, and I’d be delighted to see more people reading more of them; I also love other less popular forms of media and would be delighted to see more people consuming more of them. I think one character, one story, in an unfamiliar genre or medium can be like a gateway drug in the best possible way: it leads to consuming more stories that the reader might never otherwise have found and experienced.
CharacTour is in beta now. Head on over and check it out. I’ll just be hanging out, reading some new stories.