Reading like a Writer

One of the dangers of crossing the line from reader to writer is that it changes the way you read. For me, it makes me impatient with bad style, slow starters, lack of tension and plot holes. I am much more likely to drop a book than to keep reading if it’s not grabbing me.  There’s just not enough time to read bad books–or even mediocre books you’re not enjoying.  But I am also much more likely to delve into the question of *why* it’s not working.  What has the author done or failed to do that is causing my departure?

But reading as a writer is also a great asset in considering how to improve my own work, or learn a new technique.  In this case, I turn to a book or an author who’s doing a good job.  When I want to learn more about the writing craft, or to study the work of someone I admire, then I approach it as a research project.  What can I learn about the people who are doing it well?

Right now, I’m working on a thriller novel, my first entry into that genre, so I’m reading and listening to more thrillers, thinking about how they are constructed, what makes a good one, what I enjoy and what I hope to do for my readers.  At the moment, I want to know how authors introduce their series characters.  How do you make a character who will capture the reader’s imagination, and keep it for a series of books?  To that end, I purchased copies of the first volumes of several series I admire, and I am examining their openings one by one.  In order to analyze them rather than get carried away by them, I start by re-typing the first few pages. This makes me pay attention to the word choices, verbs, descriptors, sentence construction and order of details.

I started with Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, which introduces Chief Investigator Arkady Renko.

a screen shot of Gorky Park's first page, with my commentary

a screen shot of Gorky Park’s first page, with my commentary

Before we even learn his name, we are given an image of Renko as set apart from his companions (lone wolf–already intriguing).  He is described as “sympathetically listening” to another officer, an appealing trait.  As we sink into his point of view, we find a cynical sense of humor.  The KGB appears next–and because we are (mostly) Americans, we are instantly on the alert.  The lead KGB officer comes across as too jovial, and it is this character of whom we are already suspicious who introduces the protagonist, by losing his smile and shouting his name.  A sympathetic lone wolf strong enough to have enemies in the KGB?  I’m hooked.

Interestingly, Smith starts to lose the bond he’s established between the reader and the protagonist a few pages later, when less appealing traits seem to be emphasized, and the characterization feels inconsistent (We are told he smokes cheap cigarettes when faced with the dead–another point in his favor, this small flaw, but soon he is chain-smoking all the time, which makes me doubt the author.  While he is initially shown as sympathetically listening to a subordinate, he becomes abrupt, and at one point abusive to a degree that seems unnecessary).  Later books in the series maintain a more clear image of Renko as a man of action, perhaps fatally flawed by his refusal to abandon even the most difficult and personally challenging case.  But that initial grab is what I’m looking for–a character the reader admires and wonders about, one with a balance of clear action, attractive traits, and humanizing flaws.

How about you?  What attracts you to a character?  What would you like to see on page one that will make you want to know more?

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in books, character development, fiction, writing, writing advice, writing series and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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