Sunday, March 25, 2012

Unlikable Characters

I've been working on my novel and trading reviews via an online writing community and from an offline source as well. Critiquing and being critiqued is one of the most interesting parts of writing but also one of the scariest. A writer puts a lot of herself into her work. It's one thing to point out or to have someone point out a few comma errors or an awkwardly worded sentence, or even a plot loophole. It's another to have someone criticize your basic premise or, horrors or horrors, your characters.

"I think you've got a good story going here, but I'm going nuts because I'm not sure I like your main character." I just received this bit of feedback from someone who had just finished my first few (revised) chapters. I'm certainly not setting out to write my characters as me, and for all that they contain aspects of myself, I think I've been successful at making them unique. I know it's a strange analogy, because I've created these pretend people from scratch and my own imagination. Nothing about them should surprise me. Yet, I honestly can't say that they (or the story) unfolded exactly as I envisioned when I started writing. In some ways, they're like virtual offspring. I cherish them in spite of their flaws. It's hard not to feel defensive when someone says he dislikes one of them, even if the character is question is a bit like a troubled child who hatched out of a cuckoo's egg. He didn't get all that angst from MY side of the family--honest!

Of course, I hope to get more feedback about what it is the reader dislikes about the character. Is it due to something that I can, or should, alter? Does he think the character is vapid and unconvincing, or is the character so believable that his flaws are frustrating in the way a real person's flaws are frustrating? Most importantly, is the 'not liking' the kind that would lead the reader to put the novel down, or the kind that draws the reader in?

Characters don't have to be 'likable' to be compelling. I didn't 'like' Thomas Covenant during most of Donaldson's first Trilogy, but I found the character interesting and relatable at a certain level, and I became invested in his story. In fact, my main character is meant to be a rather disturbed and conflicted person. Early on, he's dealing (or perhaps failing to deal) with the consequences of some rather horrible things that have been done to him and some rather horrible things he's done. In fact, the protagonist doesn't like himself at first.

Not everyone wants to read a story where the plot driving character is deeply flawed (though it certainly leaves room for the character to grow and change throughout). But not everyone wants to read a story where the protagonist is Mr. or Ms. wonderful either. So what I really want to know is whether the character being perceived in the way I intended him or her to be? Is my intended portrayal of the character something that at least some readers will find intriguing enough to get into the story and hopefully start caring about him/her and his situation in spite of his/her flaws?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reading for fun

 Why do some people love to read fiction while other people would rather watch paint dry? I find that reading allows me to step into another reality in a way that watching a movie or playing a computer game does not. It's the only medium that allows one to truly get inside the head of another person and to see the world through his or her eyes. I know that my attitudes about a lot of things have been influenced by characters I've encountered in books. In a world where it's becoming harder and harder to connect with people at anything other than a superficial level, I find myself especially drawn to this aspect of reading.
            But not everyone finds the experience to be exhilarating. I had a friend tell me once that he feels like he's being 'manipulated' when he tries to read a novel--because it's trying to make him care about/believe in something/someone that he doesn't care about or believe in. It does make me why some people find themselves bored or annoyed by the experience, rather than intrigued. I also wonder why this particular person finds novels more 'manipulative' in that way than, say, a TV show or movie.
            Now as a nerdy scientist, I find myself wondering if anyone has ever done research to find out whether reading lots of fiction expands ones capacity for empathy (and if so, which forms of empathy). If it does, would it mean that a world where people read less fiction will be a world where people will have a harder time relating to the emotional states of others? It is also possible, of course, that people who are empathetic to some degree like reading because they already enjoy vicariously experiencing other peoples' emotions. So which comes first?