"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature." - Ernest Hemingway
Saturday morning at RavenCon found the fam--well, most of us--up bright and early at 8:00 am (thus proving I can be up and out of the house by that time on a weekend without a fishing pole in my hand!) at the hotel helping to set up for what promised to be a great day. It wasn't hard; as I've said before, the RavenCon staff is quite a good team so the setup went both quickly and painlessly. That left me standing at a few minutes after 9:00 with some time on my hands.
What to do? Attend a session, of course. There was one I'd been curious about, and it was right down the hall from the Con Suite. The title: "What Harry Potter Did Right." Now, hey, what author who aspires to compose the next Harry Potter could pass that one up?
The fifty-minute discussion can pretty easily be summed up in one word: characters. What JK Rowling did expertly was craft characters that were disappointingly human and remarkably memorable and lovable at the same time. A great deal of discussion went into the growth and development of the main and supporting cast of the book.
Take, ferinstance, the main trio: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. People have criticized the first couple of books for being written at a low level, but as Gail Martin pointed out the POV in all the books was Harry, who in the beginning was only 10 or 11. How much inter-faculty rivalry would a boy that age pick up on? At the same time, though, in the first and other early books you saw a great amount of lovable character come out of the three, despite and at times because of their young ages.
All the characters in HP had a significant amount of depth to them. Then again, Rowling had seven books to develop and present that depth. Martin pointed to Mrs. Weasley as an example: all along we see a solid wife and homemaker, and at the end we find out that she actually packs some power in her wand (or as Gail Martin said, "we find out why she was admitted to the Order of the Phoenix").
An interesting discussion came out of how much of a book should be devoted to characterization. One of the panelists (I think it was Michael Ventrella; sadly, I went there with no note-taking capability) brought up the Slitherins and the rest of the Houses. In the Four Houses, of course, Rowling characterized the greatest aspects of mankind. The Slitherins, Ventrella pointed out (I think) were among the least developed, though, often just appearing as evil villains rather than the personification of cunning and intellect that they were supposed to represent. But the question came quickly: how much should an author devote to such characterizations? As it was, Rowling wrote four relatively short books and three long ones. She could easily have added another several tens of thousands of words discussing the Houses, but--would it really have moved the story forward?
As it is, Martin pointed out, there are many scenes in many books where not much action happens. The dance scene in HP, for instance, doesn't have a ton of action in it. On the other hand, in that scene you get to see some of the characteristics of the main trio as you've never seen them before, especially highlighted under the lamp of their growth. They are, after all, children who are trying to grow into themselves at the same time they're fighting off giant spiders, whomping trees, and evil wizards.
Bottom line of the session was really that a writer to succeed--well, of course you have to have a plot, and you have to have conflict, and you have to have all the other parts of storytelling they tell us about in Writing Fiction 101. But if you don't have characters the readers will connect with and want to learn more about, then all you'll have is a Fiction 101 book.