In his recent memoir, celebrated actor Sidney Poitier wrote, "The true measure of a man is how well he provides for his children." Similarly, as a reader and a writer, the true measure of a fiction story to me is how well it provides for its characters and its readers.
Not historical accuracy, not plot, not craft, nor language. A story’s characters should always form the first impression, be the focus, and create a lasting impression. Whether this is the dimpling sweetling in a Regency-set historical, a kick-ass brainiac of the twentieth century, the loathsome evil-doer, or the downtrodden and huddled masses, the story needs to deliver these characters in full technicolor glory, accolades and shortcomings, the salubrious, and the salacious.
Every detail, no matter how insignificant should inform the characters, layering personality with values, setting up pathways and connections till the story can be said to be representative of its characters, that it has value unto itself that no one or no thing external to it can give or take away, book critics not withstanding.
Integrity and commitment, faith and forgiveness, joy and discipline, toughness of mind and independence—these form the very rhythm of life itself. They find the place for all sorts of energies circulating within. And they hold the novelist’s dreams for a story as tightly as the story is holding on to them, nurturing the story and feeding it till it can stand on its own.
Every story must put the readers’ ideals and beliefs to test by pushing the envelope just a little bit to ask the question, "What can this story do that will be daring, interesting, and necessary?"
At the same time, when the writer sits down to write, she needs to be mentally awake in every way—have her eye out, her ear out, and be primed to ensure that nothing untrue to the characters occurs. The feelings of groundedness and belonging that have been woven into the reader have been his companions from the start of his journey with the book. Thus, sacrificing a character for a plot trick isn’t an option.
This is breaking the pact with the reader, where the words on the page have taken root down at the deepest level of commonality—down where all of us are molded out of fundamentally the same clay. There’s much about the reader that is one of the characters, and there’s much about a character that is one of the readers.
Poitier’s motto is, "Never leave home without a fixed commitment." Similarly, a book should never begin nor end without a fixed commitment to its characters and readers.
What to you then is the true measure of a book? Is there a story whose time you think has come? Have there been authors who have lived and faded away, never having had an opportunity to express their genuine talent? And which books would you say perpetrated a gross miscarriage of justice against their characters?