Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Writing Epiphany

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.


Karen & Gerard Zemek said...

I agree with you. Sometimes I don't like a main character in a book, just because I don't relate to them or totally disapprove of what they do. I try not to let that keep me from reading the book, though I probably won't like it very much (example: No dogs Allowed by Bill Wallace: If I don't like any of the characters, then that's when I give up on it (example: Pieces of My Sister's Life by Elizabeth Arnold.

Jill said...

Totally true. In fact, I read and liked Exposure. I thought the main character was very believable in her choices for herself. They weren't choices I would have made, but if I only read books where the character mirrored me, well, that would be boring, wouldn't it?

All the same, there are books that I won't read because I simply can't go there. And I'm aware the problem is with me, not the author.

Timothy Fish said...

You could be right, but I’m not quite ready to assume that nothing could be done. You mentioned the military guy going undercover, even though it would mean never seeing his mother again. It’s human nature for people to want a healthy relationship with their parents. That’s not to say that it’s not also human nature to do things that hurt a relationship, but when readers see characters doing these things they are naturally drawn to disliking the character. Just establishing that a relationship isn’t a positive relationship isn’t enough. I have a character whose mother is abusive toward her, but as one of the good guys, I can’t have her write her mother off. There are a couple of things we can do if we need a character to break his relationship with his mother. One is that we don’t even mention the mother. We know that families sometimes fail, so that could work. The second and better solution is to have the character deal with it. The character might at first say he’s willing to break the tie, but later he will question that decision. Or it could be that the reason for going undercover isn’t big enough. I tend to think that some readers will accept unbelievable things as believable, but if they were honest they would find the unbelievable things other people mention as being unbelievable as well.

Lisa Buffaloe said...

Brandilyn, I'm so glad you brought up these points. Our backgrounds often do limit our vision to step beyond what we have known and experienced. I've always loved your characters, and some of them have tugged on my heartstrings. (Maybe living a suspenseful life helped with the identification.)

Other authors who write light-hearted and fun novels give me a great read when I can step inside the skin of their characters. Even if they live a life I can't imagine, help me understand their motivation, and I'll stay to the end. :)

C. S. Lakin said...

Great thoughts, Brandilyn. One thing a writer can do, though, is have another character later on (or that particular character ask herself) question her as to why she did that. Have that character ask the question the reader is asking: "Why did you run? How could you do that and not call the police?" By asking the question for the reader, we can see the character process her own answer. Maybe she realizes she doesn't know why she ran. Or she answers in character: "I don't know. I was so scared, I couldn't think of anything but run!"

If the reader still doesn't buy it, there isn't anything you can do. Since you write suspense and take people to sometimes uncomfortable places, it's bound to happen that readers identify with the discomfort and don't want to believe a character would act a certain way. You really hit the nail on the head! Thanks!

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Absolutely true, Brandilyn, and very freeing. we must always strive to do our very best--and then do better. But when we've done that--and rewritten a couple more times--it's really out of our hands. Just getting on with it is so much of the job.

Kelley Pounds said...

This is interesting. I'm not writing fiction anymore, but it makes me remember one of my projects that a critique partner had a real problem with. No matter what I did, or how I tried to portray the troubled mother/daughter relationship between the heroine and her mother, my critique partner still could not understand how the heroine's mother could favor the heroine's brother over her. Unfortunately, my friend is currently going through some very tough times with her teenage daughter, but she gets along great with her son, so she may be a bit more understanding now. Also unfortunately, I've witnessed child preference in a number of families, so I know it happens. Hey, it happened in the Bible, right? ;)

But this also makes me think back on books in which the characters do things that I would never consider doing. But I have to admit that some of the books that linger in my mind are books in which the protagonist or main/sympathetic character does things that are difficult for me to understand, not because the motivations are not believable, but because the choices themselves are so difficult and foreign to me. One book that comes to mind is Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which was loosely based on a real person and event. Definitely not Christian fiction of any kind. The main character, Sethe, was not very easy to like nor understand, yet that was also part of the intrigue of the book. It was as if Morrison was daring the reader to "go there," to go to the edge of the abyss and see how the human spirit can be twisted. But I think part of Morrison's ability to pull it off, at least for me, is that the reader gets to know Sethe before the extent of the deep dark secret is revealed. I'm not saying I approve, but it was somewhat understandable, even though the book left me with a sick feeling.

Another author whose books are challenging, and yet I enjoy them, is Philippa Gregory. Her books are usually full of court intrigue, bad behavior, manipulation and twisted motivations--even by the protagonist--and even though I don't always like or approve of the choices the more sympathetic characters make, I can't help but like the stories themselves. Sometimes I enjoy a book even after I leave it very thankful I never had to live in the time period or under the circumstances that the characters had to live through. "There but for the grace of God," so to speak.

Lynn Squire said...

Amen, Brandilyn, Amen. :)

Jan Cline said...

Your epiphany just became mine. I have been struggling with the fact that people may not like what Im writing. But there are as many different points of view as there are readers. I could read a book tomorrow and have the same experience you did. But then, I could pick it up in a year and not react the same way. Lives and perspectives change. Hmmmm.

Nicole said...

I think C.S. makes a valid point, but this borders on spoon feeding readers, and I disagree with the concept. If the question comes organically, fine, but if it's strictly used as a method to satisfy some odd reader(s), no.

I agree with the epiphany and how it came to sink in. There are certain types of characters I detest. But I don't expect the author to write around my desires. I'm one reader. That's all. One opinion.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

C.S. and Timothy were both commenting on possible techniques to use to help in character motivation. While there is merit to those techniques, that's not the issue I was focusing on. I was focusing on the fact that there WAS nothing else to be done, that the author had done everything he should have done--which I as an author recognized--and still it didn't matter to me. No matter how well a character who allows his mother to think he's dead is characterized, I'm never going to like him. Because I just can't go there. Same way with a protagonist who abandons her children. I can not, under any circumstances-no matter how well they're portrayed--want to read about a mother who abandons her children. That's just me. Doesn't make me right and the author wrong. Just makes us of different opinions, with me wanting to read one kind of story, and the author wanting to tell another.

Over on Facebook one person asked, "So did you go back then and finish the book?" I said no--because I gave myself permission to not want to read the book. By the same token I must understand when my readers just don't "get" one of my protagonists. Doesn't make me wrong; doesn't make me a failure as an author. Just makes us of differing opinions.