I have found that I’m quite an oddity when it comes to reading. Put simply, I just don’t care much about the characters.
If a story is singularly about the main character’s “development”, with no real happenings or larger events surrounding the character, I probably will not like the book very much at all. Thankfully, in most cases, there is some mix of the two. In those cases, I’m still drawn in much more by the things happening around the characters (and what might happen) than what is happening to the characters themselves. I consume stories on a universal scale, not a personal one, and often lament when the surrounding universe is underdeveloped (for my tastes at least).
I’ve long since recognized this fact, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I discovered how seemingly unique a trait this is. No one I know strays so far toward the enjoyment of “setting” as I do, and most trend quite far the other way. Now, I don’t want to be confused – I don’t enjoy long dry chunks of exposition about the setting. Paradoxically, I normally can’t stand that at all, unless I’m intentionally reading non-fiction or something written in the vein of non-fiction. It’s a no-no for novels.
So, what are characters good for? For me, they exist as mouthpieces for the greater events surrounding them. I’d be just as happy to read a fantasy story from the perspective of a grunt soldier as the great hero, as long as both of them relay the politics in the Court of Alakazam and the detailed outcomes of the Super Mega Death Battle. Their own personal achievements mean little more to me other than to give pertinence to their ability to relay information. A king will have more insight into the court than a common peasant would. Realistically, all perspective could be abstracted to an unnamed narrator, and I’d probably be just fine.
I’m finding this is a really bad preference as a writer, especially given that I seem to be quite in the minority pool of readers. One of the things I struggle with the most is caring about my characters enough to develop them well. I have to be constantly vigilant I don’t have a barely-named narrator going through the motions as the world revolves excitingly (to me) around him.
I want to write about the entirety of the grand epic Battle of Butchers Hill, including the heroics of the militia that held the line five miles away from the hero. Sadly, most readers just don’t care about those valiant mooks. They are just fluffer, maybe deserving of a couple of sentences when wrapping up how the battle played out. No, instead I need to focus on how the hero is mentally anguished at being forced to fight and kill his half-brother who stole away his wife.
I realize I’m being somewhat hyperbolic. There are plenty of examples of books that go heavily into the settings, but even then those passages/books are those I hear most lamented as “dry”. I apparently like “dry” books, but I don’t want to write dry books. I don’t think dry books are likely to get published as easily, if at all (I know, that’s largely a separate argument these days). I want to write stuff people want to read, not stuff they are going to skim until we’re back in the head of the main character(s).
It’s frustrating. Many writers talk of their characters like living people they can’t get out of their heads. I don’t think that will ever be me. I will probably struggle with this problem for the entirety of my writing career, at least to some extent. I just hope it will get easier to feign investment in my characters. Will I ever love them? I doubt it. I just want them to be robust and believable for those who are into that sort of thing.
I suppose at least I won’t mind torturing them and killing them off.