Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Characters Welcome! A guest blog by Lesa Holstine

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  Our guest today is Lesa Holstine, eponymous blogger of Lesa's Book Critiques, one of the smartest book review sites on the web. I'm going to quote her own blog profile to give you an idea of her range:

Lesa has been a library manager/administrator for over 30 years, in Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and, now, Indiana. Winner of the 2011 Arizona Library Association Outstanding Library Service Award. She is a contributing Book Reviewer for Library Journal, Mystery Readers Journal, ReadertoReader.com and VibrantNation.com. Winner of the 2009 and 2010 Spinetingler Awards for Best Reviewer. First Fan Guest of Honor for Desert Sleuths Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Write Now! Conference.
 In other words, Lesa loves books. A lot. Today, she shares with us  - aspiring authors, pay attention! - that one thing that makes a good story a great read.


“Characters welcome” is the slogan of the USA Network, but it could be the slogan for my mother’s side of the family as well. We’re all readers. I just happen to be the one in the family who writes a blog about books. I started Lesa’s Book Critiques eight and a half years ago as a place where I could talk about what I had read. And, I didn’t care if it was only my family who read the posts. My mother was one of seven children, and there are more than forty first cousins in my generation. So, I not only discuss books on my blog, but I write a book column in the family newsletter. And, it’s not uncommon for my Mom and my sisters to all read a book at the same time, something I featured on my blog.

Why am I mentioning my extended family of readers today? Because I was just home for a week, together with my Mom and both sisters. We do talk about books on the phone, but this was a chance to talk in person. And, we’re all passionate about mysteries. We take characters and mysteries very seriously. We want authors to bring characters to life. And, I know we’re not the only ones. Why else would Rhys Bowen have so many comments on Facebook when she asked how far Lady Georgie and her love interest, Darcy, should go? Readers care.

If you had overheard our conversations this week, you would have heard one of my sisters recommend Jacquelyn Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books to the other. She referred to them as meaty books in which she learned a lot about British history. And, you would have heard me passionately discuss the development of Jane Cleland’s Josie Prescott series. My sister teased me, knowing my pet peeve. “What? Josie Prescott isn’t Too Stupid to Live?” I analyzed Josie’s growth from a lonely woman to a strong woman who has gathered around her a family made of co-workers, friends and a cat. And, she is smart enough to work with the police, not against them.

Can you tell we care about characters and how they change? My youngest sister’s email notes to me probably contain much better and more succinct reviews than any of mine. She’ll complain about a character who dumps a boyfriend, or she’ll tell me the sleuth’s behavior was inconsistent. I have a cousin who reads the mysteries, and drops me notes commenting on the development of the series.


I wrote the chapter on “Mystery Fiction” for the latest edition of Genreflecting. I discuss Julia’s books, Deborah’s, Rhys’, Jane’s, and Hank’s, among others. Why? Their characters fit my comment. “Most readers of mysteries will also say they read the books for the appeal of the characters.” And, I’ll honestly tell you that I drop a series if the sleuth is consistently “Too Stupid to Live”. I also disliked a recent bestseller that lasted forever on the lists. I hated the characters.

When authors ask what they should write about when they do a guest blog, I often suggest they do an interview with their sleuth, or allow a couple characters to do the guest blog. It’s fun to see the questions an author will ask of the character. And, I’ve seen some very revealing questions and comments come from those characters. Sometimes, the sleuth has interviewed the author, which can be funny.

I want to like your characters. And, my extended family reads my blog, and the newsletter. We talk about your books, but we really talk about your characters. We care, and we can be passionate about our likes and dislikes. We’re not telling you what to write, or how to develop your characters. As readers, we really just want you to know we appreciate what you do, and we sometimes discuss your books and characters as if they were acquaintances. Give us characters to love, and we’ll forgive a weak mystery now and then. I’m sure I’m not the only one who read every Spenser book by Robert B. Parker because I adored the character even when the mysteries grew weak. So, “Characters welcome”, please.



What do you look for in characters, dear readers? Who are the most memorable ones for you? Join in the discussion, and one lucky commenter will win an ARC of THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS!

Lesa Holstine blogs about books and reading at Lesa's Book Critiques. You can also like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @LesaHolstine and keep up with all her posts on Tumblr.

39 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

When the characters are realistic, and their actions are consistent with the reality the author has created for them, then I am a truly happy reader. When I read a series, I have certain expectations for the characters, based on the world the author has created for them . . . and I get really annoyed when they are “too stupid to live” and do something inconsistent and “out of character” for that reality. The characters that truly resonate with readers, I think, are the ones that are multi-layered, complex, and true-to-life.

Austin Carr said...

LIsa: My wife said that about GONE GIRL -- hated the characters so badly she couldn't read it. I've also seen that in GG's reviews quite a bit. Bad characters, bad book.

Not me. GONE GIRL is the best thing I've read in decades, even with sketchy people telling the story. I liked watching the train wreck.

Dorothy Hayes said...

This is my first visit, it was fun to read about how your family discusses books and the enjoyment that you have in sharing. As a mother of four, I'll give this a shot.

Terri Herman-Ponce said...

I love, love, love faulted characters. I am fascinated with broken spirits (that don't always necessarily heal) and the complexity that we see in humanity every day. What interests me most is when an author takes a human's failings and throws twists in that I never expect. For me, that is the greatest read ever.

Hallie Ephron said...

In Gone Girl Amy is worse than flawed. She's EVIL. In a nasty passive aggressive way. It's what makes the success of that book remarkable, and why it's such a good book group book.

I love ALL the characters you highlighted, Lesa! But you're right they have to be flawed, not dumb. One of my favorite flawed characters is Chet the dog in Spencer Quinn's books.

Anonymous said...

Two of the blogs I follow every day combined in one today! I love characters who are as Joan says "true-to-life". I like knowing about their lives, loves, and aspirations. They can be flawed (aren't we all) but I won't read more if they are too stupid to live or if they are beyond evil. I don't mind bad, Valmont and the Marquise come to mind, but unrepentant and so evil as to be boring won't do.
Thanks to Lesa and to the Reds for wonderful blogs.

Kaye Barley said...


Aw, it is so much fun coming here and finding one of my favorite people. Hey, Lesa!

I'm a reader who needs compelling characters and tend to fall in love with them. I guess that's why some of us love series - knowing that we're going to have a chance to visit with our favorite characters again. We laugh with them, and we cry with them. We bring them into our hearts and want good things for them.

Kristopher said...

Great post Lesa. I am such a fan of your blog. I so admire the commitment you have to the reading community. If my own blog can reach just a fraction of your success I will consider it a triumph.

As for characters, I really just need them to be honest, I need their actions to be authentic to who they are. I may not always like them, but if they have those two traits, I will still likely talk about them with others.

As I have said before, more than once I have heard from others "you do realize that they are not real...right?". Oh, but they are!

Anonymous said...

When I open a new book - or re-visit an old friend I've loved before - I want to completely immerse myself into his or her world, environment, challenges, difficulties, passions - even failures - and live with that person in another world. Maybe this is a carryover from loving fairy tales as a child. I want to live with this person and cheer for him/her til the end - and feel good about him/her and myself as we both come into the next step of our lives together. Plot and setting are important, but it is a character that makes me buy and read the book. I want to find a real kinship with this person. He/she becomes a deep part of my life and soul. Thelma in Manhattan

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

YAY Lesa! So lovely to see you here...you have changed so many lives with your dedication to good books!

See you soon, right?

Edith Maxwell said...

I love that you have a built-in book club, Lesa!

Yes, those characters that become part of your life, that you can't get out of your head once you put the book down, that enrich your life despite their flaws.

Lesa said...

Thanks, everyone! I wish I was around all day to respond to the comments as they come in, but I'm in meetings all day at work today. It's so much fun to see the comments about characters people love, and traits they hate. Funny how a few of you guessed the book I disliked. I'm afraid I need at least one character to like, and that book didn't have any. Hallie! I adore Chet. He's such a dog, and true to his personality. Hi to all my author friends, and the readers from my blog. And, it is good to have family - a built in group of readers. Love to all of you!

Libby Dodd said...

Good characters, continuity, and good editing. I, too, can't abide characters "too stupid to live". Nor will I put up with multiple breaks in continuity. I'll give yu one or maybe two if the book is otherwise good, but please remember what yu said to chapters ago. Ebooks are the most infamous, but a lack of editing, bad spellings and such, is pretty much unforgivable.

Lisa Alber said...

Hi Lesa,

Nice to virtually meet you, the woman behind the fab website!

GONE GIRL keeps coming up in conversation, here and everywhere. Flynn definitely achieved something with that book. I loved it, but then I'm fascinated by unreliable characters.

I love flawed characters, and I agree with folks here--flawed is one thing, stupidity quite another. One thing I love about a good series is the ongoing complications in the series characters' private lives and how the complications change as the characters grow. I gave up on one bestselling series because the heroine's complication was the same old thing book in and book out. After awhile, I thought--GROW UP. :-) It just wasn't funny anymore.

Lesa, if you're going the Bouchercon, hope to meet you there.

Pat D said...

Flawed characters are certainly more real. It is important for them to grow in a series, otherwise it is like they're suspended in aspic! I get turned off also by series with a main character who makes the same dumb mistakes book after book. Why isn't he/she dead by now? Usually because they're blessed by dumb luck and smart friends.

Linda said...

I, too, have given up on books/series where characters were "too stupid to live." Flawed? OK. Nasty? OK. But operating completely beyond the bounds of reason? Uh-uh. One of my recent faves is forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway in Elly Griffiths' series, def flawed but tough as all get out!

Brenda said...

I live close to Albany. Are there any events at Boucheron for readers or is this just for authors?

Deb said...

Hi Lesa!! So great to see you here! And very interesting to find out the things about your family that I didn't know. I do discuss books with my daughter, who is a big reader, but what fun it must be to have such an extended family of readers.

I'm afraid I fall in the "must like at least one character" camp. Even if that character is flawed (which just makes them more interesting) I want to have someone I can root for. And I've never liked books where the main character is an unreliable narrator. I just feel cheated at the end.

Call me stodgy:-) But my heart will break for very flawed characters like Louise Penny's Jean Guy Beauvoir.

Lesa, you are a delight, and all we writers AND readers appreciate your hard work!

Leslie Budewitz said...

What fun to log on and see Lesa -- who articulates so well why we read: to find out what people who interest us will do in a sticky situation!

And Hallie, "characters should be flawed, not dumb" is just brilliant!

Stephanie Brent said...

Yes, characters have to be relatively realistic for me to enjoy a book. Some characters are outside my world experience but that is okay if they are consistent--true to themselves.

In addition the plot and basic assumptions have to seem logical too. I've read several mysteries lately where the story is based on people doing things or making decisions that no normal person would do/decide and there is no convincing explanation given of why they would do such weird things. IMHO a lame explanation is worse than no explanation at all.

Linda said...

I want characters that I care about -- whether I love them or hate them -- and that I will miss them when the book is over. Characters who get into my head and heart are the reason I go around pushing all my favorite series and books onto friends and even strangers.

Gone Girl was like watching a slow motion train wreck, and I absolutely LOVED it. Convinced my book club to read it -- THAT was an interesting discussion! While I knew Amy was absolutely crazy, she fascinated me, and while I wanted to make her disappear in some "tragic" accident, I also wanted to know what might be coming next.

Kristopher said...

Brenda -

Bouchercon is a FAN convention. While there are tons of authors there, including most of the JRW's, the main thrust of the convention is fan interaction.

If you are close, I would suggest not missing the opportunity to attend. I have heard rumors that there may be day passes offered for Saturday, but right now, the only option of a full registration. Well worth the money though, since you will walk away with more than that in free books and memories.

Dotty Ryan said...

I want a character to have complexity and consistency and to be surrounded by similarly well developed characters. Two or three multi-dimensional people surrounded by stereotypes doesn't do it for me. There also has to be at least one character that I can sympathize with. Throw in a good story and a rich sense of place, and I'm hooked. Bonus points for bringing in issues of current concern.

Might as well throw my two cents worth in on Gone Girl. Although I was repelled by the characters, I was compelled to stick with it to the bitter end. I needed to read some Alexander McCall Smith afterward as an antidote.

Kristi said...

The best characters are the ones that I care about. Debs picked out Louise Penny's Beauvoir, but, really, can you think of any Penny characters that don't give rise to some emotion? Truly, she is amazing. Some of your characters feel like family -- I wonder what Clare and Russ and Gemma and Duncan and Georgie are getting up to "between books." Severus Snape was one of the best flawed characters, but, Hallie, you are so right about Chet. The best flawed characters are the ones that seem redeemable -- the ones you wish you could "save," somehow. I think I care about them the most... (oooh, you clever writers, you!)

Gram said...

Yes, flawed but growing book by book. No wooden puppets for me. And surrounded by other minor characters who are also true to life. Gram

Jim in Durham said...

Thanks for your post! Characters make or break books for me. Have you seen UKL's essay on "The Spaceship and Mrs. Brown"? Great stuff. I like characters who face interesting dilemmas, want to do good things, and have to deal with various obstacles. They need to be self-aware enough to be unhappy with their imperfections, and best if they're hopeful nonetheless. Like Clare, Gamache, so many others.

Micky said...

I really like the cover of Lethal Treasure with the cat on it. I looked at the excerpt of Gone Girl on Amazon once but it didn't make me run out and order it from the library so I haven't read it. I think I'm tired of hearing about "flawed characters." Nobody's perfect but when I think of a flawed person I would think of someone with major problems such as an alcoholic or drug addict. Too stupid to live? That's a new one. For some reason that makes me think of amateur sleuths that keep stumbling over bodies although those are my favorite types of books.

Deb Romano said...

Lesa, I am SO jealous of you for having a family of mystery lovers to discuss books with! I'm from a family of avid readers but they have little or no interest in mysteries.

For me, the protagonist in a series must grow over time, even while making mistakes. But I don't like it when a favorite character does things that are out of character for him or her, and we're just expected to accept it. In real life, there are certain mistakes that certain people would NEVER make, and there are people whose mistakes will generally be of a certain type. In books I hate stupid mistakes; I'm pretty sick of fictional characters consistently forgetting to recharge their cell phones or consistently leaving the phone behind somewhere, particularly if the characters are in professions where it is important to have access to a phone. (Would you hire any kind of professional who cannot be reached by phone or who rarely remembers to check email?)

Also, I need to like at least a couple of characters. I have no interest in books where everyone is evil or everyone is using people. Yes, there are unpleasant people in real life, but I do believe that there are more good people than bad ones! Even in a series where it is clear who the heroes are, I can take only so much nastiness from a recurring character before I decide to stop reading a book or an author.

I have no idea what this says about me, but I recently read a YA mystery that's book three or four of a series I'd never read, and I fell in love with one character but could not muster up any enthusiasm for anyone else. The one I loved turned out to be the culprit, whereas the others were the series regulars!

I love Chet, by the way!

Vickie Radford said...

I enjoy characters that grow with each book letting the reader learn more about them, they become people you would actually like to know. I also love characters with a slightly warped sense of humor.

And, Debs, I totally agree with you - I think Armand is wonderful, but Jean Guy fascinates !

Marianne in Maine said...

I fall in love with characters way too much. :-)

I just read the latest book in a romance/spy series (have you read the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig? They are fun.) and I wanted to grab the lead character by the shoulders and give her a good shake. Stubborn woman! But not a stupid or bad character. I've put down books - something I hate to do - when there are poorly written or totally unrealistic characters.

Flawed? Aren't we all. I'm about to jump into the new Louise Penny book to find out what those characters, flaws and all, are up to.

And thank you, Lesa, for introducing me to your blog and a few new-to-me authors.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

thanks for saying that Marianne, we are all flawed. Or if we don't think so, maybe that's our flaw:)

As a writer, the most fun for me is thinking about how the characters will grow and change. That's what I love to read too--don't care that much about solving the puzzle.

Lisa, nice to see you here. Hope your new life is treating you well!

Lesa said...

Great conversations about characters, everyone. That's what I love about Jungle Reds. Everyone pitches in to discuss their point of view. Interesting to see everyone who loved Gone Girl and those of us who disliked it. I had to read another Gillian Flynn for a workshop, and I'll admit I couldn't get into that one either. Again, I didn't find a character I could like. As a couple of you said, there has to be at least one to root for.

Some of you brought up Louise Penny whose new book, How the Light Gets In, was released today. Usually, I'm on top of it with a review on release date. Since I was with my family all last week, I didn't get the chance to read it yet. But, like you, I'm looking forward to reading about all of those wonderful people in Three Pines. I did read the first two chapters, and the opening chapter will suck you right back into Penny's world. Oh, those characters, with all their flaws!

It's so nice to see everyone talk about characters.

Lesa said...

I do want to clarify "Too Stupid to Live", although I think most of the readers have come across the term before. It isn't necessarily meant for amateur sleuths in cozies. I love so many of the cozies. Someone had it right, though. It is meant for those who agree to meet up with someone who has a clue, an anonymous someone that the sleuth meets in the middle of a dark deserted place, and doesn't tell anyone. But, gee, there might be a clue! As much as I loved some of the old Gothic romances, what were those women thinking of? Off to meet some stranger in the middle of the night, and wearing high heels of course. Usually on a cliff or in a basement. I did love Gothics, though. I'm afraid I do tend to forget my cell phone at home, though, so those are probably my TSTL moments.

Lesa said...

I don't want to hog the conversation, but wanted to answer a question that came up a couple times. I'm not going to Bouchercon this year. I am planning to go to Left Coast Crime in Monterey in March, though. Louise Penny is International Guest of Honor, Brad Parks is Toastmaster, and I'm sure I'll be ready to head to California in March after my first entire winter in the Midwest in years.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Lesa, how lovely to see you here today! One of my favorite reviewers on one of my favorite blogs, hurray!

I'm with you on TSTL characters. They irritate the heck out of me. But I've run into a dismaying situation lately. A writer I love who creates wonderful characters now writes a new series. Other one dropped, I'm afraid. In the new one, she makes her protag TSTL. Makes me wonder if the publisher isn't wanting it. What do you do if your wonderful writing hasn't sold well enough & to have the chance to keep writing you have to pen a stupid character? Tough decision.

Lesa said...

It is a tough decision, Linda. I hate to see that.

Thank you for the wonderful compliment! Jungle Red Writers is one of my favorite blogs as well. It was so nice of them to ask me to write a guest post. It's always fun to be here.

Reine said...

Lesa, I'm so glad to find you here today. This is a wonderful post. I also love your blog.

I must not win any more books for now, because I cannot keep up with reviewing. I wish I could read and review even a small portion of the books you do.

Lesa said...

Really, Reine, have you noticed any book reviews on my site in the last couple weeks? Even I get overwhelmed sometimes!

Reine said...

Thanks Lesa, but you make up for it—big hugies. xo