Writers: some readers hate your characters

You know those extra-scenery notes I keep talking about writing every time I write a scene?

The ones where I write about writing, and end up with 10-20 words written per word of finished fiction?

Well, I thought I’d mine some of them for blog posts about the writing process itself.

The snippet from Journal 18:

And, since I’m posting Chapter 18, here’s a piece from the Journal 18 file I kept while writing that chapter:

“Just a minute, though: I had an interesting conversation with MM on Wattpad: she doesn’t like Andrew.

Phew.

Rachel LOVES Andrew.

That is an important difference.

To capture more of the market, I need to at least THINK of all the people who DON’T like Andrew – and what he stands for.

They need to be able to like Andrew because Kary does, even if they don’t see it themselves.

Which is a biggie: a lot of people don’t like Mr. Rochester, either, or the husband in Rebecca, because they are flawed human males. Very flawed. TOO flawed for some people.”

You don’t control readers’ reaction to your characters

When you create characters, you HAVE to let the readers form their own conclusions about those characters. Once you write things as well as you can, make your case as compelling as you can, it is OUT OF YOUR HANDS.

The author doesn’t get to sit on the reader’s shoulder, pointing out what the reader should feel, and how the reader is missing the author’s point, or how this character will be revealed later as better (or worse) than he/she appears at this point in the story – or any other little thing the author DIDN’T put in the story. Or merely any little thing that the reader and the writer will DISAGREE on.

Hating Mr. Rochester

Lots of people wonder what the heck Jane Eyre saw in Mr. Rochester – they don’t get it. He is rich, mean to poor Jane, willing to be a bigamist, entitled, rude, whatever.

And some of us – lots of us, apparently, or it wouldn’t still be read – get that the attraction is Jane, and how she loves, and that SHE is what makes HIM attractive, because she is attracted to HIM and we love HER. Her gentle way with words, her ruthless self-examination, her faith: he can’t be that bad if SHE loves HIM.

And ultimately redeems him by holding HIM to HER standards.

What do you do when readers don’t see it your way?

But back to how this applies to whether all your readers will like all your characters, or react to them the way you want your readers to react.

It doesn’t matter.

If there are two groups of people in the world, those who like your character and those who don’t, it means you have to solve only HALF of the world’s problems. (Ignore, for the purpose of this exercise, those who never read your story, those who read and don’t like any of it, and those who don’t like this kind of story and wouldn’t read it even if they knew it exists.)

Just because some readers don’t like Andrew doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of readers who do.

The conversation with MM reminds me that some people don’t like Andrew – they find him arrogant and entitled and self-centered.

I find him way too healthy.

But I love him – and half my readers may not.

Which just means that KARY will have to carry the weight of PC for them. IF they read, it will be because they identify with HER, and SHE loves Andrew with a passion she can almost not explain.

It is similar to Scarlett O’Hara’s misguided love for Ashley Wilkes – and didn’t keep millions of people who thought he was a wimp from finishing the story. (Including me.)

Phew – stop worrying!

ONE strong character can carry a story.

Some people will even identify with Bianca, and think I’m being horribly mean to her.

That’s fine.

I can’t be all things to all people, but with 7 BILLION people on the planet, I still ought to be able to find a few readers.

Maybe the people who don’t like Andrew WILL like my writing enough to read.

No writer can understand all readers

Whereas maybe people who read badly-written genre work somehow like the protagonists enough to forgive the bad writing. Must be the case in some readers – how else do you explain it?

Real world, Alicia. Real world.

MY TASTES ARE PARAMOUNT. For MY writing only, of course.

Which is exactly the same thing the literary writers/readers say – and I think they’re plotless hacks. Well, there’s little chance I will try to join them – I can’t write either literary or genre. Duh. You write what you are, what you have made yourself out of all the writing you’ve read, plus the teaching you’ve had (heavily biased by whether you like the TEACHER enough to listen), plus everything that has happened to you and how you interpret it.

Goes right back to: you write what you are, even when you think you’re being clever and hiding yourself as an author.

Back to work!

Which wildly popular characters do YOU find completely unlikeable?

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11 thoughts on “Writers: some readers hate your characters

  1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    I’m seeing Dean Wesley Smith’s point about keeping one’s mental “writer space” private more and more strongly.

    Yes, write to the absolute best of your ability. Yes, keep stretching your writerly skills. Yes, tell the story with every ounce of writerly cunning you have to create a seamless experience for the reader.

    BUT, the first audience for your words is you. Tell the story you want to tell in the way that pulls emotion out of you.

    I’ve thought Dean was right about this all along. I just hadn’t been able to “close the mental door” (as Stephen King says) completely while doing my own own writing.

    Then, this fall, I did. I started a novel that I’ve wanted to write for more than 15 years. And I said to myself when I started it: “You know…this one’s for me. I’ve wanted to write this one for so long, and I’m just not going to worry about what my readers will think of it. This one is for me.”

    And the writing process felt so smooth and wonderful. Not that I didn’t have to work. I did. Not that I didn’t have some dicey moments. I did. But I felt so much more freedom. And it felt like the way writing is meant to be. I want more of that!

    I had that freedom yesterday while writing WIP. I didn’t have it today while writing WIP. I suspect I was given a taste of what is possible while I wrote Caught in Amber this fall, but now I’ll have to work for it. That’s okay. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be typing on my laptop, with plenty of opportunity to practice letting that sense of freedom in. 😀

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      That’s so wonderful – I’m glad. If you aren’t your first and best reader, why are you doing this? Down deep.

      Write if you need encouragement; I don’t do critique, but can occasionally help less experienced writers (which you aren’t) with minor craft points. Otherwise, at least I know how hard the struggle is – and that it’s not against yourself, but against our standards.

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      1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

        Thanks, Alicia. Wise words!

        I was just thinking about encouragement today. Yesterday was one of those days when a lot of positive experiences came flooding in. I had two very satisfying exchanges on TPV, one social and conversational, one silly and fun. Someone told me she was looking forward to reading one of my short stories. I discovered that a free promo I had scheduled a month again (and forgot) had started, and there were already 20 downloads, even though I had told no one. And, most of all, I had written 2,480 words.

        So I was thinking about that this morning, because when I have a day with a lot of positive input, I tend to want the next day to have just as much, and – generally – it does not. I wanted to leave room in myself for Friday to be different from Thursday and yet be just fine. Here I was with an entire fresh day to enjoy – a gift from God – and I didn’t want to waste it with unreasonable expectations.

        Once I got that far in my thinking, I realized that yes, it is human to enjoy positive input. Human, and even healthy. Yes, it is natural to want more. BUT, as enjoyable as praise may be – and I find it very enjoyable – it pulls me off my center. Days full of praise feel wonderful. But the most wonderful days of all are those in which I feel exactly what the next right thing to do is and then I do it, and in which I am fully open to the events of the day and ready and willing to engage with them and respond appropriately. And that kind of day is very, very challenging to have when I am pulled off center with a lot of praise.

        So today was not one of those wonderful days of either kind (full of praise or full of centered being), but neither was it a downer of a day. It was ordinary. I wrote, but only 1,100 words.

        Honestly, as writer, I feel like I want encouragement more often than not. I’m grateful when I get it. I carry on when I don’t, because writing is what I want to do, and some writing days are like flying, some are deeply satisfying, and writing always gives me a sense of meaning and purpose.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’m also questioning what kind of writing day leads to what kind of needs. Some days are gathering days – those days where I fill out all my prompts, and the questions are easy – if deep. I’m not producing anything yet.

          Other days are the writing days, where I have to make everything I want to keep, from the whole bunch of ideas and bits of dialogue and thoughts and points a character wants to make, turn into fiction. Where I have to come up with, it seems out of thin air, a way to start THIS scene – and it’s scary. Because here is where I produce output people will see.

          I’m going to have to pay attention to whether there’s a difference in the need for encouragement and feedback depending on the stage I’m in, writing the current scene.

          Today I had the gift of a new reader – one who, over the last couple of days, has read the whole thing. Maybe she was what I needed to get that tiny little push to the end.

          It helps a whole lot to get my writing in FIRST, and then go looking for human interaction. Because I feel a bit like a fraud when I haven’t produced yet – and I don’t want the human interaction during the writing. The writing time is just me, alone with my words – as it should be.

          This past week, I have been fighting a cough, and haven’t made a good dent in 19.3; I am champing at the bit. I never count the words, because my process only produces output at the end – and those other days I’m working as hard as I can, and writing hundreds and thousands of words – but they’re not ‘finished fiction’ words.

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        2. J.M. Ney-Grimm

          I’m still learning how to manage myself as a writer. I suspect that’s an ongoing process. I learn how to manage my writing self now, and then I change and must add new methods to the old.

          Just this morning I did the unwise thing of looking at my sales and checking to see if there were any new reviews. No new reviews. No fresh sales. And only two fresh downloads of my free short story. Quite normal when one sells an average of 15 stories per month (with 30 to 31 days in the month and only 15 sales to stretch across them). And quite normal to get 40 or so downloads when you don’t advertise a freebie. (I didn’t because I had a different goal than massive downloads.) But…sob.

          Mistake to go looking, once you look, you want to turn up something. The nothing, nothing, “bad” something brought me down.

          But here’s the cool thing I learned. Or relearned. 😉

          I decided I wanted to write just a little bit this weekend. Normally I reserve weekends for family and other activities. And I won’t attempt full writing sessions this time. But I had a window of opportunity this morning, so I took it. And a quick 468 words later, I felt much better, persepective restored, good to go!

          For me at least, writing often makes me feel better. I get to go away from my life for a little to my story world and people. I accomplish something, and accomplishing something improves my sense of my own agency. And I make progress on multiple goals: finish this story, write and publish more works, be a writer (which only happens by writing – writers are people who write).

          Lesson learned. When in doubt, write! Even if it’s just a few words. YMMV, of course. Everyone’s process is different.

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          You are so right! The answer is to WRITE. Something. Anything. A comment. Write a few words about why you can’t write. Or a blog post – the fiction may be stuck, but the non-fiction flows like warmed syrup.

          I know about the nothing. I know about the writing. (But I forget.)

          Here’s another one I keep forgetting: go read one of the books on writing I have already marked up – or one of the ones waiting to leave an imprint. I bought them for a reason – and they often remind me of that reason if I’ll just get them out and give them another chance.

          PS Come here and write any time!

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        4. J.M. Ney-Grimm

          PS Come here and write any time!

          LOL! I was good and wrote fiction words before I popped over to write here. And now I’ve written the product description or “blurb” for one of my upcoming releases in March. So now I feel super productive! 😉

          But thank you for the invitation! I’ve been making the most of it over the past few weeks, and I’ll undoubtedly be taking you up on it in future as well.

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  2. Rachel6

    Y’know, I rather needed this. I’m getting back into the writing swing, which means submitting to my writing group, which means swallowing my pride and my laziness and re-examining, reworking, and rewriting whatever needs fixing. You boosted my morale with this 🙂

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’m so glad. I know you’ve been BUSY, but writing is also something you need to do. I wouldn’t call it pride or laziness, though – those are pejorative and NOT helpful. Think instead that you have a need to wrestle with things because they are important – and worth getting right.

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  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    I’m the same way, MIsha – I have to have SOMEONE to latch on to as my avatar in the story. If well written, it can be a serial killer (Dexter), so I’m not really picky – but he or she has to have SOME redeeming quality, some little bit of humanity, and to be better than someone else because of that, or I can’t read/watch.

    I usually try very hard to like the first character presented in a story, so I try to provide a sympathetic first character for my readers-to-be.

    In your Catskinner book, if I remember correctly, James did not choose to have his brain occupied – so I felt immediate sympathy in some degree.

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  4. MishaBurnett

    My work is very character driven. One thing that I see consistently in my reviews is that people who don’t like James, my narrator, don’t like the books. Which is fine, as you said, not everyone is going to like any particular character.

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