This coming weekend, in addition to including my brother's birthday (Happy Birthday, Charlie!), a gift from the gods of storytelling will be revisiting we mere mortals. Raiders of the Lost Ark is returning to theaters in an Imax presentation that an authority no less than Steven Spielberg himself has deemed amazing to see.
Personally, I'd go see RAIDERS on the big screen (and this will be a really big screen) no matter what format was being displayed. RAIDERS in black-and-white? Not as good, but I'm there for it. RAIDERS with a score by Justin Bieber? If you can get the 12-year-old girls to stop squealing during the dialogue, I'll put up with it.
I'm a devoted fan of the 1981 classic adventure paying homage to way eariler classic adventures. Let others have their Matrixes and their Dark Knights; I'm sticking with Indy. And while the room full of snakes and the predatory boulder and the melting faces (that third act is the only weak spot) are cool, there's a much better reason to check out the first and best adventure of Dr. Jones this weekend.
It's a great story chiefly because none of the characters is stupid. And the main character is an absolute gem of a man whose ingenuity and perseverance (and imperfection and humor) would bring me back to the theater a thousand times if there were enough time and money to tell that many stories about him.
Character is the reason we love stories. Special effects are nice to look at, and scary tricks are fun to play with, but the fact of the matter is that stories are about characters. If they are memorable, you have a story, and if they're not, you don't.
There are those who will cite exceptions to the rule by noting box office totals. Granted, AVATAR is the largest-selling movie in dollars ever made. There aren't any characters in it, but it made piles and piles of money. If that's how you're keeping score, you're absolutely right. Looking at pretty images of blue people flying on dragons in 3D can indeed make you a mint or two, even if nobody remembers what the main character's name was.
But to me, a memorable movie or television show or, yes, book is one in which I meet characters (I don't say "people" because things like TOY STORY or PINOCCHIO are technically not about humans) who will have an effect on me.
Do you think CASABLANCA is a classic movie because of the intricacies of the plot? That A STUDY IN SCARLET began a wonderful series because the murderer was so cleverly revealed? That HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET was about clearing the case every week?
Writing character is immensely important. You can have a fantastic story idea and a fascinating setting and clever dialogue and an exotic murder method and a stunning reveal of the culprit at the end, and all of it will get you a grand total of nowhere if the reader doesn't care about the person whose story this purports to be. In series writing especially, character is infinitely more important than plot, because it is character that will keep the reader coming back book after book.
A great character doesn't have to be likable, although it doesn't hurt. She or he doesn't have to be virtuous, or brilliant, or even right. What a character has to be--what every character has to be--is interesting. Without a demonstrable trait that turns a concept into a person, what you have is a plot device. And plot devices are dull and unappealing. I wouldn't get to page 50 with a plot device. Give me an interesting character, and I will read book after book.
I read Robert B. Parker's Spenser series long after, frankly, the plots had become interchangeable and the situations repetitive. Why? Because each entry in the series gave us a little bit more about the main family of characters, all of whom (yes, even Susan Silverman) had something about them that I wanted to know.
Many other series keep me coming back because I want to spend time with the personalities peopling that world. I'm not going to list names here for fear of leaving someone out, but you can rest assured that if I read more than one book in a series, it's not because the plot was so well handled; it's because the characters left me wanting more.
That's what you strain for when you're writing. Find out something about your character that doesn't immediately come to mind when you're building the initial situation. Alison Kerby in the Haunted Guesthouse series likes to listen to oldies and refuses to cook. I didn't know that would be the case when I set up the idea of ghosts in a Jersey Shore guesthouse. The oldies thing came from the idea that when Alison's life was about to change, she'd be listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival singing "Bad Moon Rising." The cooking thing came because I don't know how to cook, and wanted to get Alison's guests out of the house at mealtime so she could run around investigating crimes.
Once those traits were in place, though, I understood the character better. And I think she got a little bit more interesting.
So you can bet I'll be heading out next weekend to see a really, really big projection of Indiana Jones one more time. But they didn't really have to bother with the Imax. Indy, Marion, Marcus, Sallah, Belloq and Toht are all worth visiting again.