They have to, or else why would anyone read a suspense thriller with the name Crossroads? Fans don’t buy my books for the romance (although there is often some of that, not so much in that particular novel). They buy them to be thrilled, and I write them to be thrilled because, honestly, I follow the story the same way my readers do, from page to page. This time I started with a teenage girl barely into puberty because who is more vulnerable except an infant or adolescent, but they are more difficult to make lead characters in adult fiction. Not impossible. Koontz did it admirably in One Door Away From Heaven which I loved, but within a page or two of starting Crossroads I fell in love with Kira Graves, and then I had to let her tell her story.
Some of my characters are more forceful in that way than others. Micky Ascherfeld, the heroine of my first published novel, Cold Heart, took off running and didn’t stop for three weeks. That’s how long it took her to dictate her tale in my ear and for me to type it. I raced downstairs shaking the manuscript assuring my wife that it would sell quickly (she’d heard that for ten years and a couple of dozen unpublished books so she could only manage a half a smile and nod). But two weeks later I had offers of representation from three agents, got the one I wanted, and two weeks after that we had a six figure deal. So if you have a character screaming at you to listen I suggest you do. Trace Wentworth from The Remnant had a story to tell, and since I’m not a fan of rats I was reluctant to listen, but since he wasn’t either I did, and we had a great collaboration. In the end I almost got to like the creepy little rodents.
I suppose I should explain that when I say my characters are screaming in my ear that’s a metaphor. Only rarely do I hear them speak and usually that’s when I’m driving (I find driving incredibly relaxing and muse-inducing, and my wife no longer even frowns when she sees my lips moving) and we’re having a discussion. Normally I simply see what’s happening in my head and describe it. That’s probably why a couple of agents and several of my editors have described my novels as being cinematic. For a long time I didn’t understand what they meant. I just assumed it was a compliment (it isn’t always) and said thanks. But now, going back and rereading Cold Heart I realize that each chapter could be one scene in a movie whereas some writing is more difficult to picture that way.
Anyway, back to the point. I kill people. Even in my new Fantasy/Steampunk world of Verileon, which my agent is now touting, the first scene begins with just about everyone aboard a sailing vessel–which is being ravaged by a terrible storm and headed for a reef–either dead or dying of plague. The second three novel series in that world begins with an assassination. Novels are about tension, and for most people the possibility of their dying makes them just about as tense as they’re going to get. The possibility of someone else dying carries varying degrees of tension, and it’s up to the writer to raise that ante as high as he or she can get it. The only way to do that is to make the reader care deeply about the person about to die. If you can do that in a page or two or even less you are well on your way to being a masterful writer. If you can’t then no amount of detailed world creation, beautiful prose, or incredibly exciting fast-paced action will make the reader give a damn about your story.
This doesn’t mean that death is the ONLY tension creator. If it were thousands of bestsellers would have never taken off. Those writers found other forms of tension to leverage, and you have to use them, too, even if you do choose to follow my route and become a coldblooded killer. In that first Verileon novel I utilized sexual tension quite a bit to add to scenes where no one was threatened otherwise. I think of it as the Moonlighting ploy for those of you old enough to remember the series, but I did feel so sorry for my lead character that I let him off the hook earlier in the book than I probably should have. Luckily my agent felt the same way. Give the guy a break.
And maybe even save him from death.
Just make people care if he lives or dies before you do.