Friday, August 15, 2008

Getting away with murder

A writer can do almost anything in fiction, and I do mean almost anything. Want to have a character who’s a rapist or pedophile or murderer and still make me like that character? It’s been done. Want to have characters who are invulnerable or gorgeous or hypertalented and still make me ask to read more? That’s been done too – and I’m a very critical reader.

The writers who get away with this do so by balancing their characters out – either with other traits for these characters or by other features in their writing (such as style, as in Richard Adams’s The Girl in a Swing). There are many ways to make this work for me, but in this post I’ll describe four explanations that don’t work.

1. It’s justified on page 30.

If the character’s unbelievable or repulsive traits are on Page 1, it’s going to be very difficult for me to either suspend disbelief or suppress nausea long enough to get to the part where the author shows why this character is worth reading about.

2. There’s a real-life precedent.

On the whole, I like critiquing. Not only is it flattering to be asked for feedback, it’s a learning experience that goes both ways. I have to think of why something works or doesn’t work, and this helps me with my own writing as well.

The exception to this was when I once mentioned why a character’s behavior didn’t seem plausible to me. Specifically, it was an antagonist who found the heroine attractive and knew she was deeply in love with him, but refused to have sex with her. No reason given – he wasn’t highly principled or gay or living in medieval times or married to a Mafioso’s daughter.

The author replied that she knew someone who had actually behaved like that. Because of that, she took it for granted that the character’s behavior was plausible, and she didn’t see why I had difficulty with it. And since that character came straight from real life, she was very reluctant to change him.

(Digression : With my own writing, I’ve found that characters, events and conversations in real life don’t translate directly into good fiction. I’ve shared jokes in real life that had me cracking up, but when I tried one of those with my characters, it sounded odd – wooden, almost.)

3. Other writers have done it too.

Unless the other writers were writing the same kind of story at the same time, this rarely works as a justification. I like long paragraphs describing the characters’ beauty in sex-and-shopping books, but not in fantasy short stories.

4. The gods created it this way.

When critiquing a story once, I mentioned a concern I had with the characters, and the author explained it away by saying that the gods were responsible for that. This wasn’t too strange an explanation, since the story was a fantasy in which gods featured prominently, and the characters’ unrealistic traits were ones the gods had given them. But that didn’t address the issue. Whoever had created the characters, there was a problem with them.

Besides, the author was writing the story, so “the gods did it” was really “the author did it”. If a critiquer points out a concern in the story, saying, “But I meant to do that” rarely makes them reply, “Oh, well, in that case there’s no problem.”


JH said...

Good post, because this is something I have a problem with: either expositing too much or too little in the beginning of a story. As a matter of personal preference as a reader, though, I have no problem with with, "It’s justified on page 30."

Firstly, seeing something extraordinary is going to make me want to read more to find out about it, whether the extraordinary thing is very vile or very good. Of course, this is contingent on there being a reason, and the author does have only about 30 pages to give it.

Second, if the character is doing something tense, fast-paced, important or exciting in the beginning, I'm just not going to want to hear about the explanation yet. I have trained my self to note things that seem odd or mysterious to me and tuck them away, and credit the author for every one of those items (s)he eventually explains, or credibly makes an interesting mystery.

Marian Perera said...

I should have been clearer about that point. What I had in mind with regard to later justification was the start of Perdido Street Station. The setting was so grim and unappealing that I might not have continued reading if I hadn't been intrigued by Yagharek and his yearning to fly again.

If the story had made it clear at that point that the reason Yagharek couldn't fly was because he'd been punished for rape, I wouldn't have felt sympathetic to him. Rather than being someone proud and exotic and tormented, he'd have been just another part of the filth and grime. A rapist - well, he deserved whatever he got. But since this revelation only came along once I'd become invested in his problem, I kept reading.

I think this only applies to major concerns, though - things that are likely to turn a lot of people off. And it depends on the story that's being told (if it's about someone's redemption, then I don't mind reading about their crime on the first page).

I should also have been more specific about the issue of sympathy. It's easier to like a protagonist if the first impression isn't that he's committed a serious crime. I was keeping that in mind with the rewrite of Redemption, where I'm hoping the first impression readers get of Stirl is that he's a brave person fighting to stay alive in a dangerous, alien environment - not a ruthless genocidal warmonger. That comes later.

Of course, different authors will have other ways of handling this - and as you pointed out, different readers have different reactions too.

Thanks for commenting!

JH said...

That makes more sense, I think: it's not as much about implausibility as it is about turn-offs. A Mary Sue invincible sword princess with perfect DDs as a main character is simply a turn-off for different reasons than someone who tortures puppies for fun.

Doug said...

please post a rough draft of sword princess sex queeen adventure novel THANKS IN ADVANCE

if you have "concept" "art," I would also appreciate it

my personal pet peeve RE: plot conceits would be unrealistic reactions to mundane events, in an effort to set a theme or tone to the piece

e.g. an unlucky character who is so unlucky that everytime something bad happens he just SIGHS REALLY HARD and goes "JUST MY LUCK, I GUESS" because you know, one unlucky event in a lifetime of unluckiness warrants a special response unconnected from plot or performance.

It makes my eyes roll pretty hard, I'm on a special medication for reading pulp novels only though so i get by