Happy New Year, friends and creatives! How to round up 2017? This year was a major accomplishment for me in that I read 83 of my originally-planned 70 books this year! As a writer's to-read list is always growing, it was a relief to carve a big chunk out of it this year. It was also hugely educational for my writing and personal life. I read fantasy novels I had been meaning to read for years, how-to books on improving my life and getting out of a depressive slump, and craft books to improve my writing life. For a detailed list of the books I read in 2017 and my reviews, check out my Goodreads "Year in Books" page, here.
One of my New Years resolutions for 2018 is not to pick favorites, so instead of declaring which of these vastly different books was the best, I decided to round up some very compelling Characters I read this year and share with you all what I learned from them. Hopefully, you will want to pick up their stories yourself and become compelled to write characters just as great. These are the characters that jumped off the page for me this year, and inspired me to write characters that do as well:
Sefia, from The Reader and The Speaker by Traci Chee
Quote: "Wanting the world to be a better place than it is? That doesn’t make you weak. That makes you the kind of person this world needs."
About: Sefia messes up--a lot--and yet she also is constantly trying to do the right thing. She questions the rightness of killing in self-defense and the acceptability of her parents' beliefs and actions. She is a complicated and wonderful character and, as a woman of color, it is fantastic to see her face on the cover of each book.
What I Learned: Characters do not need to react in the most dramatic way possible to further the tension of the plot. Sefia shows how effective it can be to subvert reader expectations and have her take responsibility for her problems and forgive others for theirs. She is a strong and loving character whose drive to set things right drives the plot, rather than manufactured drama.
Delilah "Lila" Bard, from the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab
Quote: "I'd rather die on an adventure than live standing still."
About: Lila is witty, dangerous, fearless, passionate, resourceful, and a pain in the neck for friends and foes alike. She does not care what you think about her or what your objective is. She is going to do whatever it is that she came to do and you had better get out of her way. It is an absolute joy watching this character come from nothing and grow into new and amazing powers. She is a delight from start to finish.
What I Learned: It is not possible to have too strong of a female character. I'm not talking physically strong, or a Mary Sue, or a man with boobs. If you have created a well-rounded and believable character, then there are absolutely no limits to what you can let that character do. Lila is a wild cannon in this series, doing whatever she wants while kicking butts and taking names. Sometimes she succeeds and sometimes she makes big mistakes, but everything she does is as a fully three-dimensional character with individual agency. Schwab does not hold her character back for any reason and, because of that, Lila takes over this series and shines.
Henry "Monty" Montigue from A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
About: Monty wonderfully over-dramatic, emotional, and tragically heroic. His main struggle is that he is in love with his best friend, whom he believes doesn't like him back, but his deeper struggle is one of self-loathing caused by his abusive father. His story is heartbreakingly realistic and he is surrounded by other characters who are struggling with just as difficult situations. Monty is a wonderful character who is struggling with real-world problems such as the nature of privilege, allyship, and accepting yourself for who you are, even when the rest of the world doesn't. His imperfections make him a compelling protagonist to follow, just as his ability to grow and change makes you love him.
What I Learned: A character does not always act the way he feels. Monty's characterization takes subtext to a whole new level, as he acts almost the complete opposite of the way he feels at every moment, and this is generally to his own detriment. Throughout the story, he must learn to accept and express himself, but along the way the reader is treated to this delightfully roguish and flippant character, whom we slowly figure out over time is completely broken inside. It is masterfully done and very satisfying to see him come out of his shell and start to heal.
Prunella from Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Quote: "Prunella took to the ballrooms of London in the spirit of ruthless calculation of a general entering a battlefield."
About: Prunella is kick-ass. She takes the reader and the regency world by storm as she subverts expectations and seeks out her own way in the world, becoming more powerful than any man in the book. At every opportunity, she ignores directives from male characters and does what she knows will work and which will help her the most. She is also funny and strong and a woman of color who fights against a system that is stacked against her.
What I Learned: A character can be a product of their circumstance and also believably act in a "modern" way. The interesting thing about Prunella is that she starts out wanting to be the heroine of a Jane Austen novel: find a good husband and retire rich and happy. However, she then acts like readers would traditionally expect a male hero to act: doing whatever it takes to achieve the goal and not listening to anybody but herself and the mentors who are actually looking out for her. It is shocking how shocking it was to read about a female heroine who is truly proactive in every moment, changing the story until she becomes the most powerful one in it, and good to remember that the gender and circumstances of your protagonist do not get in the way of their drive.
Lyss from Shadowcaster by Cinda Williams Chima
Quote: "A battle is like a deadly sort of dance, Lyss thought....We go into battle to the cadence of drums and guns, but our dance cards are blank. We have no idea who we’ll dance with that day, when death might cut in, and who’ll leave the floor alive."
About: Lyss is fierce and proud and also kind of goofy. She is at home on the battlefield and is respected as a leader, but when she goes home, she struggles to fit into life as a princess. It's nice to see a princess who's more comfortable in battle armor than a fancy dress, but the best part about Lyss is how she treats the people around her. She has many friends who love her because she is loyal and kind. Though she struggles, she trusts her friends to have her back.
What I Learned: The people around a protagonist are almost as important to characterization as the character herself. We learn an incredible amount about Lyss's backstory, personality, and internal struggles just from how all the people around her treat her. It is amazing how often protagonists are lone wolves, or by themselves even in a crowd. The strong friendships Lyss has do more to endear the reader to her than pages upon pages of description could.
Maladict from Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Quote: "Who shall I shoot? You choose. Now, listen very carefully: where's your coffee? You've got coffee, haven't you? C'mon, everyone's got coffee! Spill the beans!"
About: Maladict is a vampire who doesn't drink blood. Instead, they have switched their craving and obsession to coffee, which honestly, most everyone can understand. Hilarity ensues when Maladict loses their supply of coffee and starts going a bit crazy without it. The way they dissolve from cool and controlled vampire to coffee-obsessed is tense, relate-able, and Pratchett-esque side-splitting. Maladict and the protagonist can also easily turn out some romantic fanfic and it is a shame that there will never be another Monstrous Regiment book that can confirm the nature of their relationship.
What I Learned: A friend can be the protagonist's enemy, simply by adding or removing a key element. Once the coffee is removed, tension builds as Maladict becomes more unstable and people tell the protagonist to be ready with a stake in case the worst happens and Maladict returns to a bloodsucking killer. This conflict between the strong camaraderie the protagonist has with Maladict and Maladict's potential to become a crazed killer keeps the reader transfixed. It is also sweet and funny whenever the protagonist is able to drag Maladict back from the precipice.
Angua Von Uberwald from the City Watch series by Terry Pratchett
Quote: "Well, I would have thought she'd had the decency to keep it to herself," Carrot said, finally. "I mean, I've got nothing against females....but I don't think it's very clever, you know, to go around drawing attention to the fact."
"Carrot, I think you've got something wrong with your head," said Angua.
"I think you may have got it stuck up your bum."
- Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
About: Sergeant Angua is a female werewolf cop in the rough city of Ank-Morpork in the magical Discworld. She is competent, snarky, and demands respect merely by being who she is. She is inspirational for other non-human characters in Ank-Morpork, yet she is always aware of her own struggles. She makes a terrific cop and is generally the only one actually getting things done in the sometimes-bumbling watch-house. Angua is one of those characters who seems to have depths sinking far below what is shown on the page.
What I Learned: Having a fantastic character as a secondary character can allow them to shine brighter than if they were the protagonist. This is an interesting conundrum, as many craft books will tell you that your most compelling character should be the main. For certain, all of Pratchett's leading characters are compelling, but having Angua as a secondary character allows her to be 100% badass all the time. Angua is so awesome that she can't really mess up, and that's what makes her a great character, but would make her less compelling as a main. The mark of a great secondary character is that the readers wants a whole story about them, even if you as the writer know it would break the spell.
Every book or movie a creative imbibes is going to teach them something. Think back on the stories you have loved recently. What did you learn and how can you use that in your own work? Share your insights in the comments below!