I learned something recently. Not rocket science by any means. In fact after the epiphany soaked in, I realized I'd known all the pieces but hadn't quite put together the whole. But the whole is quite refreshing.
I learned this: No matter how well I establish character motivation in my novels, some readers just won't be able to "go there."
A little backstory: My novel Dark Pursuit features a young twenty-something who makes a certain decision regarding a dead body found in her bed--she doesn't call the police; she runs. I thought I established well who this young woman is and why her present circumstances and her past experiences would lead her to make her decision. I really didn't know what more I could have done. Yet some reviewers still complained that her choice was unbelievable. Even though these readers were by far in the minority, their comments left me wondering, "What more could I have done to make that character believable to that person?" Obviously I had failed that reader somehow.
My novel Exposure features a paranoia- and fear-laden protagonist. Again I thought I characterized her as being understandable in her fears. Is she a bit over the top in her phobias? Yeah. But that's what phobias are--over the top. Anyway, when a few readers opined that said protagonist was too crazy, again I wondered what more I could have done to make her believable to them.
Of course I already knew I can't possibly please everyone with any given book. I knew that each reader brings his/her own experiences to the book, and those experiences color the reader's perceptions of the story. So when I'd see an unfavorable review I could say, "Ah, ya can't please 'em all" and let it roll off my back. Except for the comments pertaining to character motivation. Because solid, believable character motivation is very important to me. I write suspense, but in the end, I know good and well it's the characters that matter. Hence, my wondering what more motivation-establishing I could have done to hook that particular complaining reader.
Now I know the answer: not a thing.
How the epiphany went down: I was reading a novel written by a friend of mine--an author whose work I really respect. The protagonist in this book is a military guy who has to go undercover--forever. So very undercover that he must let his own mother think he's dead.
Wait a minute. No way. Huh-uh. At that point in the story, I put the book down. I could not go there. Because I could never, ever do that to my mother. Not for anybody or any good cause. So how could I possibly care for a protagonist who was willing to do such a terrible thing?
Then I started to scold myself. "How unfair you're being. This protagonist is not you. The writer has well established the level of this character's military responsibility and skill. And the writer has established that the character has nowhere near the positive relationship with his mother that you have with yours. You ask your readers to go beyond their own experiences when it comes to your books. Why aren't you willing to go beyond your experience for this author?"
"True," I answered myself. (Yes, I have these two-way conversations often. I'm a novelist--what do you expect?) "Still, I can't do it. I just can't like a character who'd treat his mother that way. End of story."
And that's when the epiphany hit. Sure there are poorly written books in which character motivation is lacking. But sometimes a reader's lack of connection with a character is not the fault of the author. The author has done all he can do. Nor is it the fault of the reader. It's simply that the reader's experience and beliefs in some particular area--an area that happens to be crucial to the character--are so strong that the reader can't put her personality aside in order to go where the protagonist wants to take her.
I find this realization very freeing.