While I'm in the preparation phase for a new book, I've been doing some self-assessment to figure out what I like and don't like in books, what gets me excited, etc. I've done lists of plot elements that I like and that I don't like, and the other day I made a list of the characters in books, TV and film that have really captured my imagination -- the ones who linger in my imagination or who are the reason I got really emotionally involved in a story. I've discovered some interesting trends.
For one thing, I get far more caught up in male characters than I do with female characters. When I was a kid, I got more into stories with female characters I could identify with, but as soon as puberty came close, it was the men I got emotionally involved with (though that started before then -- I remember TV crushes going all the way back to pre-school). Among these men, almost all are either dark-haired or red-haired. I did go through a blond phase in junior high, but since then, no blond guys seem to have caught my interest, and as I can't seem to recall anything about those characters, I suspect they were more actor crushes than any fascination with the characters. The name Simon comes up a number of times, which is kind of odd and random (the only repeating name on the list). I seem to have two main types. There's the noble, upright nice guy and there's the lost soul who may have an offputting exterior but who is actually a nice guy underneath. I really seem to like guys who aren't exactly what they seem to be, especially if there's more than meets the eye. I suppose my perfect male character is a noble, upright nice guy who's put on a bit of a facade to hide the fact that he's a lost soul.
It's hard for me to get into a story if there's no man in it I can kind of fall for, but there are two main authors who manage to write female characters who can draw me in whether or not I like any of the men. One is Jane Austen. I only really swoon over Mr. Darcy when watching the miniseries of Pride and Prejudice and can look at Colin Firth. But when reading the book, it's Lizzie Bennet who really captures my interest. I want to be her and always have that witty comeback. I also find myself really identifying with Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (even before she was embodied by Emma Thompson). Then there's Terry Pratchett, who writes great female characters, from Granny Weatherwax to Tiffany Aching to Susan to Spike. I can read those books whether or not there's a guy I can fall in love with. (And now I have a sudden longing to see Granny Weatherwax meet Carrot -- just imagine the head games.) All the heroines I like are smart and capable, no surprise there.
One really odd thing I've noticed is that, aside from the Jane Austen books, none of my favorite characters come from anything in the chick lit or romance genres. Those are supposed to be character-driven and designed to make readers be emotionally involved with the characters, but I can barely remember any specific characters, and I couldn't even think of any character names unless their names were in the book titles. It's the situations that draw me into those kinds of books. I seldom really identify with the heroines or fall in love with the heroes. I may enjoy them while I'm reading the book, but they seldom stick with me after I've read the book. Confession here: I barely even remember the main characters in the romance novels I wrote. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that these books generally don't come in series where the same main characters continue, and most of my favorites seem to come from series where I have the chance to get to know them over time. I do have a few favorites from standalone novels, but none from non-series movies. Almost all of my all-time favorite characters are from novel series or TV series. It may be a chicken-and-egg thing -- for me to get really hooked on a character, I need to see that character in a lot of situations over time, but for me to get hooked on a series enough to follow it, I have to be emotionally engaged with at least one character.
I'm not sure what all this says about me or what I should focus on writing. I think the characters I've written more or less fall into these categories. It's not exactly a news flash that I like nice guys who maybe have a touch of mystery about them and smart, capable women. It was a little eye-opening to realize I've never had a lingering mental love affair with a romance novel hero. I think I need to see characters do more than just fall in love for me to fall in love. Although I like having a "book boyfriend," a really fascinating woman can also draw me in. I do know that making this list actually helped build a character for this idea I'm developing. I tried to fit those characteristics into this story, and suddenly I had a character with a real backstory (that will require a lot of research into an area that previously held little interest for me). And I did a lot of the prep work and development for this book focusing entirely on the main female character with no idea who the men might be, which might be a sign that this woman alone was getting me emotionally engaged in the story, and that's good.
I suppose I should name some of my favorites, but I'm feeling strangely shy about that. It's like confessing which guy I liked to my junior high friends (a HUGE mistake). Some of them will probably be obvious from the way I talk about TV, books and movies, but I think I will leave the rest as a mystery.